Wednesday, November 30, 2016

RETRO REVIEW: NOT DEAD YET, BUT FAST APPROACHING: "Live Free and Die Hard" is high on stunts, low on thrills, and shows its age.



[Occasionally, ACC will provide retro reviews of long released films. Below is one that was written for a writing for film course I took in the late 2007].

The 1990s must not have been an easy time for the founders of "Planet Hollywood". Attempting to move on from the 80s action roles that defined them, their forays into other types of films met with varying and often disappointing results, not the least of which was diminishing box office returns. Now, well in their 50s (and perhaps hoping to recapture some of that old 80s matinee magic), they have dusted off their respective properties: Arnold Schwarzenegger went robotic in Terminator III: Judgment Day one last time before becoming “The Govenator”.  Sylvester Stallone revived Rocky Balboa for one last eponymous and critically acclaimed bout (and hopes to strike a one-two punch with the forthcoming Rambo). So it comes as no surprise that Bruce Willis brings John MacLaine out of retirement for one last hurrah in Les Wiseman’s Live Free and Die Hard (2007), the fourth installment in the Die Hard franchise that, for all its modern elements, cannot help but show its age.*

When the FBI’s mainframe is hacked, they enlist reluctant NYPD Detective John MacLaine (Willis) to retrieve teenager Matt Ferrell (Galaxy Quest’s Justin Long), a hacker who is suspected of having something to do with the event. No Die Hard film would be complete without MacLaine going through some sort of domestic dispute, this time in the form of his estranged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winestead). While the specifics change, the basic plot remains constant: A terrorist (Timothy Olyphant) holds innocent hostages in the name of revenge and profit. In this case, the hostage is the United States and the means cyber terrorism.  This film’s technological bent not only modernizes the concept for the sake of relevance, it also taps into a prevailing national fear. While the Die Hard films can not be considered existential by any stretch, this latest entry presents a threat scenario that could conceivably happen. Perhaps if this were a William Gibson novel, more consideration could be given to this possibility and how it could be practically resolved. However, this is a “blow-em-up” action film where practicality, logic, and the laws of physics are violate or outright discarded for the sake of thrills and chills.  On this level, the film only partially delivers.

As befitting its modern setting, the action and special effects get spruced up. Unlike MacLaine, director Wiseman seems to be enamored of all the benefits requisite with technology as the film brims with CGI effects to the point beyond spillage.  Unfortunately for the film, its special effects are not on par with those seen, say, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and its over-reliance on inferior CGI brings the viewer out of the action and removes any element of danger from the proceedings. Equally distracting are the various coincidences that drive the plot and rescues (especially in one narrow escape scene involving a Terminator statue) with each narrow escape more spectacularly incredulous than the last. However, these contrivances work if they are not dwelled upon.  Marco Beltrami’s score doesn't help matters.  The music is quite muted and sedate for a big budget action piece, which is surprising from the composer who scored such films as xXx: State of the Union, Blade II  and I, Robot.

Wiseman tries to give this film an espresso shot not only through the visuals, but with the actors themselves.  The film is infused with a self-conscious youth orientation in order to resonate with a new movie going generation to whom the Die Hard series is ancient history.  Long acquits himself quite well as the fish-out-of-water hacker who becomes “Robin” to Willis’ uncaped crusader. Though given little screen time, Winstead makes the most out of her role as MacLaine’s feisty daughter to the extent that one can believe she came from MacLaine’s gene pool.  Timothy Olyphant, while not quite fleshing out what is admittedly a two-dimensional role, projects a menace and evil that belies his good looks. One cannot help but note that Willis is the oldest of the principals and his (impressive) state of physical fitness, unfortunately, calls attention to that fact.  In the previous installments, John MacLaine was an “everyman” who one could conceivably have a beer with; one who went from marginally fit in the original Die Hard to practically a slob in Die Hard with a Vengeance.  Now trimmer, balder, and more determined (i.e. "bad ass") than before, Willis presents a MacLaine who, while still hurts and bleeds, teeters precariously close to the super action hero stereotype the series initially shied away from.  It is only Wills’ natural charisma that preserves the audience’s ability to root him on.  The film is replete with homages to the previous films (such as an agent’s particular surname, running through shards of glass, helicopters, claustrophobic hallways, etc.) that any fan of the previous films will enjoy, but also reminds the viewer that this is previously charted territory.

Very few sequels dare to go beyond the edict of “more of the same”, and rarely do they succeed.  For all its flaws and self-consciousness, Live Free and Die Hard makes the attempt and, while not wholly successful in that endeavor, is still an entertaining action romp, and isn’t that what all action movies ultimately aspire to be?

*NOTE:  All three actors reprised these roles in outings released subsequent to this review.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED: "Doctor Strange" Is A Good Film That Falls Short of Potential



As summer segues into fall, the blockbuster bombast gives way to quieter cinematic fare. "Quieter" being a relative terms when it comes to Marvel Studios. Their latest release, Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson and based on the character created by Steve Dikto and Stan Lee, is indeed quieter compared to its recent predecessor, Captain America: Civil War, in the way Guns 'N Roses is quieter in comparison to, say, Ghost or Slipknot. Strange acts as a departure from the Marvel standard as it explores soul-searching mysticism within the realm of super-heroics; an opportunity it never truly takes advantage of.

Neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is to medicine what Tony Stark is to technology, with personality to match. When an accident deprives the arrogant doctor the full use of his hands and effectively ends his career, Strange’s inability to accept his circumstances lead him to Nepal to seek the aid of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who can purportedly succeed where medical science failed. In the process, he embarks on an esoteric journey even as he finds himself in the middle of a war between The Ancient One and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) whose outcome can determine or seal the fate of the world.

The narrative follows the Clarke-ian principles as established in the Thor films, couching magic as a form of advanced science, perhaps to keep it grounded in believable terms (as believable as this universe allows, at any rate), but still maintains a foothold in the arcane. Of all the heroes rendered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, Doctor Strange had the potential of profundity, its premise a classic and intimate bildungsroman which could have transcended the conventions of the super-hero genre. The eponymous film does address these matters only cursorily, and cheekily tweaks them in a way that keeps the material from taking itself too seriously. After all, despite its mystical trappings it is, first and foremost, a crowd-pleasing actioner; not a lofty meditation of the human condition.

The character and his world, as envisioned by Ditko and Lee, were reflective of the eastern mysticism and psychedelic zeitgeist of the sixties; something that the visual effects team was keenly aware of. The strongest facet of this film is that it’s a Technicolor marvel (pun intended), visually combining trippy, kaleidoscopic aesthetics of the source material with a decidedly modern representation. Think Inception on acid by way of Dali (as in Salvador, not the Lama). The effects team show remarkable imagination with images that brightly pop off the screen, especially in 3-D format. Rarely does a film in recent memory elicit “oohs” and “ahhhs”. This film is that rare exception.

If only the story were as meticulously rendered. For a film whose subject matter is thematically intimate, it is almost…clinical…in presentation. Doctor Strange, more than most of the Marvel cinematic films, is a rite-of-passage story; a journey inward blanketed with Bruce Lee bon mots. Though replete with themes of mortality, time, egoism, and surrender, the journey still feels lacking. That is in no fault to Cumberbatch, who is thoroughly engaging in his role. He balances Strange’s arrogance with a sympathy that humanizes what could have easily been caricature. Unfortunately, Strange’s moments of epiphany and growth are stunted and glossed over, if not totally lacking. Without going into specifics, while the narrative story does account for Strange’s affinity for magic as the film progresses, the viewer investment of said epiphanies is lost, which undermines whatever resonance they could have had. He’s competent because the story requires him to be, and not necessarily because he’s narratively earned that competency. Regardless, its evident from his performance that he's enjoying the material, as solid an acting job as he's ever done and solidly anchors the film. 

That condition is not exclusive to Strange’s character arc. The film’s pacing stumbles. It’s like a sprinter: starts strong, moves at an even gait, and then suddenly rushes towards the finish line at a hurried, break neck pace. The ending feels rushed. By the same token, it’s a clever and beautifully rendered set piece that almost makes up for its unsatisfactory arrival. Unfortunately, the usually-reliable Michael Giacchino’s score for the film doesn’t quite distinguish itself outside of his other work. The story, locations, and themes practically scream for the use of more esoteric instrumentality, but the use of same, such as the sitar, is underused, with acoustical callback to the character’s ‘60s psychedelic beginnings reserved for the end credits. A shame, as a more comprehensive use could have elevated the action on the screen. Despite this, Giacchino’s score still services the film adequately.

The performances of the actors do make up for the narrative shortcomings. The casting of Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One” was controversial; decried as another example of Hollywood white-washing. While the move was said to be predicated by concerns over the loss of much valued revenue from China (as the source character was Tibetan in origin), the casting of the androgynous Swinton acts as a sort of compromise in maintaining the character’s visual aesthetic, while preventing the film from being a sausage fest. The other female character of note, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is just that close to being extraneous given the amount of screen time she’s given. However, McAdams imbues her character with competence and a center that makes it understandable why the magisterial Strange would be so taken with her, while Swinton’s Ancient One is by turns magnetic and inscrutable, which incongruously serves the story while undermining it in terms of her character’s arc and motivation. Chiwetel Ejioforas Strange’s mentor/companion Mordo, however, is possibly the film's most realized performance. To say more would be to give away a major development to the uninitiated. Suffice it to say, that his particular journey is believable in context due to the strength of Ejiofor’s acting. Benedict Wong’s Wong character serves, in a sense, as Doctor Strange’s version of Guardian of the Galaxy’s Drax the Destroyer...in a good way. Mikkelsen imbues Kaecilius with a sinuous subversion that almost makes the viewer question the justifications of his character’s actions, making for a villain above the Marvel norm. 

As to fealty to the source material, as with all Marvel film output, be prepared to be flexible. A few liberties are taken (especially with one core part of the lore), but the changes are not egregious enough for fans to call for director firings. Ultimately, the film is a blast, and the changes do not detract from that.

Doctor Strange is a mixed bag with the positives far outweighing the negatives. Its stunning visuals merit viewing in 3-D and vibrantly embraces the colorful richness of its source material. Despite its missed opportunities and cliff notes presentation, Strange is a decidedly fun romp that alternatively respects its material even as it playfully winks at it. Good as it is, it could have been a greater film. It wins the game, but does so without achieving a home run, a rarity for Marvel. But then, stranger things have happened. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 25, 2016

AMERICAN CULTURE CRITIC'S RETURN TO CANONFIRE WITH ADRIAN MAIQUEZ

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUL1CtETRSE&feature=share

Monday, August 8, 2016

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



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

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

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

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

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

THE “GOOD”:

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

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

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

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

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

THE “BAD”:

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

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

THE “UGLY”:

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

One Particular Performance (Why So Serious?):

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

What's Love Got To Do With It:

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

* * * * *

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


Monday, August 1, 2016

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 21, 2016

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


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

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



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