Sunday, November 25, 2018

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

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

-          E.A. Bucchianeri

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

-          Warren Eyster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 27, 2018

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

Ten years.

Nineteen films.

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

A road that has led to Avengers: Infinity War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

IN THE BLACK: Marvel's "Black Panther" Tells A Familiar Story In A World All Its Own. [POSSIBLE MINOR SPOILERS]

If The Lion King and Rocky III had a love child, it would be Black Panther.

Stop me if you've heard this one: A reigning champion is challenged for the title. The champion defeats all lesser comers, unbeknownst to him that his right hand is harboring a dangerous secret; one that manifests itself as formidable, angry challenger who threatens to expose the champion as a fraud and wrest from him all that he holds dear....

To say any more would spoil the entire film. Despite major differences, the film is a beat-for-beat structural retelling of a 1983 classic...yet given that director Ryan Coogler helmed the Rocky spin-off Creed (starring Michael B. Jordan, who appears here as "Erik Killmonger"), he would be well versed in Rocky lore. The third film in that series has been referred, in certain circles, as "the perfect super hero film", so the fact that the film's skeleton mirrors the other so closely is not an indictment (save for the element of predictability that bogs it down), nor is it an unfair comparison either, since both structurally (and, quite honestly, the structure of most Marvel Studios films to date) are steeped in mythology. The Heroes' call to arms, their rise, their fall, their "death", their "rebirth"...universal themes that are shared across cultures, but rarely with such resonance cinematicaly as here given that Africa is steeped in it. It treats the Panther, both as character and myth, as an entity unto himself, despite any superficial resemblance to characters that came before it like "Batman" or "The Phantom". 

Black Panther is a celebration of Africa and its culture in design, dress, and presentation...all of which is embodied in Chadwick Boseman's "T'Challa", King of Wakanda, giving a performance that is by turns confident and unsure when required, befitting a "hero's journey". The film is also a treatise on the importance of birthright, dignity, duty, honor, and family (themes that mirror the above-mentioned Disney animated classic), while not shying away from the issues of ignorance, marginalization, and racism. The Black Diaspora is referred to but not directly addressed as this is, first and foremost, a super-heroic fantasy. However, it is infused in the narrative without browbeat; a testament to the film's narrative technique, despite a clumsy third act before the film's climax.

The film not only addresses racial equality, but gender as well. As capable, charismatic, and dignified as Boseman is in the role, it's the women who steal the film right from under him. Letitia Wright plays "Shuri", T'Challa's sister and chief technological scientist (succinctly put, she's Wakanda's "Q"). Her fraternal relationship with T'Challa rings true. Danai Gurira trades katana for spear as "General Okoye", leader of the Wakandan guard, and wields it, and her role, in effortless, commanding fashion. Her presence is kinetic, and when she's not onscreen her absence is palpable. Lupita Nyong'o's "Nakia" is no damsel-in-distress, but a capable individual who stands as equal to the Panther. While Angela Bassett as "Ramonda" makes clear which side of the family T'Challa got his regal bearing from (and, not for nothing, but at fifty something, Bassett here looks and acts more like the X-Men's "Storm" more than Halle Berry ever did). The "Mickey Goldstein/mentor" analogue is shared between two characters, "T'Chaka" (John Huri) and "Zuri" (Forrest Whitaker), and they fulfill their roles adequately. The two major Caucasian actors, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, reprising their roles of "Ulysses Klaue" and "Everett K. Ross" from Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, respectively, take the polar opposite positions of enemy and ally. While they are instrumental in moving the plot forward, they take a back seat wherein other films they would be front and center...something else that sets this film apart.

Marvel films of late from Age of Ultron on (with the arguable exception of Ant-Man) have endeavored to put to rest the studio's stigma of weak villains. The recent trend being menacing villains with goals so relatable as to invoke sympathy. It's a fine line to walk to have a an effective baddie whose actions are deplorable yet whose motivations are completely understandable, if not justified. In this sense, Jordan's "Killmonger" stands toe-to-toe with, if not slightly edges out, Michael Keaton's "Vulture" or Daniel Bruhl's "Zemo". His character's rage is the aspect most reminiscent of Rocky III, but unlike Mr. T's "Clubber Lang", Killmonger's rage is more atavistic, personally motivated, and focused. But he's not a two-dimensional character, for Jordan takes what could have been a stock villain archetype and infuses moments of nuance and vulnerability. This film, combined with Creed, shows an actor of remarkable depth and versatility that can play either side of the moral coin. A hero is only as good as his villain, and while Boseman is quite good as the title character, it's only when he's paired up with Jordan that his performance truly crackles. Special note must be made of Winston Duke as "M'Kabu", the "Thunderlips" of the film and, like Hulk Hogan, just as contradictory: menacing yet a source of much needed comedic relief.

Marvel Studios banked on this film, and it shows. Visually, the film pops (with only two instances where the CGI was wonky enough to take one momentarily out of the film), taking advantage of the film's settings to make each location stand out in vibrancy. The movie's score and soundtrack, Ludwig Goransson with music by Kendrick Lamar (among others), capture the African cultural aesthetic both traditional and modern, further individualizing the other films under the Marvel banner even as it remains firmly within that shared universe.

Black Panther in many ways is a standard Marvel film, with its expected conventions firmly in place. But in many other ways, Black Panther is its own entity, and a triumph as it dismisses and rises above both expectations and confines of what is expected of a "black picture". Not a whiff of the blacksploitation era is evident here. These are fully realized, human characters (despite their over-the-top superheroics), who happen to be of a certain nationality and culture. It embraces that even as their characters struggle with the idea of opening it up to a world that sadly still has not caught up with the ideologies of equality and brother/sisterhood. But for all its significance, it never loses sight of the fact that it is supposed to be a fun, fantasy adventure. The actors are clearly enjoying themselves, even at their most serious, as there is an infectious joie de vivre infusing the film that the audience cannot help getting caught up in.

Recently, a black super-hero renaissance in live-action has started to emerge. While Wesley Snipes' Blade has not been given its appropriate due in spearheading it, the rise of such characters as "Black Lightning" and "Luke Cage" has shown that there is a market for heroes of color. Black Panther will certainly cement it. It's not a perfect film structurally, and its politics will leave some moviegoers cold (but that will be a commentary to their own prejudices rather than the film itself). Black Panther is not only a must-watch, but it is also a cultural touchstone (even if the story itself doesn't match that weight). The fact that it was made at all is a testament to that, and it's a step in the right direction.

Friday, November 17, 2017

JUSTICE DAWNING: Justice League Rises to Occasion but Falls Short of Potential

As I type this, I think of Ted Knight.

His is a name perhaps unfamiliar to millennials, but one fondly remembered by the Baby Boomer and GenX generations. To the former, he was the goofy, cluelessly self-absorbed news anchor Ted Baxter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” To the latter generation, he was known for his turns as the snobbish oaf Judge Smails in Caddyshack and, to a lesser degree, “Cosmic Cow” cartoonist Henry Rush on the show “Too Close For Comfort”. But to that (my) generation, he's best remembered (at least to me) as narrator for the first season of the Saturday morning cartoon “Super Friends”(1973), a "watered down" take on the Justice League. The reason it's remembered so fondly is because his delivery gave an iconic, reverential stature to material that had been dismissed as childish fare. To this author’s mind, no other production before or since has presented the characters of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman with such gravitas sans irony or parody. His introduction implied relevance to those characters, even if the episodes themselves were hokey (even by the standards of the day).

His voice resonated as I sat down to watch Justice League (2017). The young fan in me longed to feel that same swell of anticipation of seeing these heroic figures brought to life as a team for the first time. Unfortunately, Justice League doesn’t quite live up to that aspiration. While it is a good film, it doesn't reach the potential to be great.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman, a newly inspired Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), with the help of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) goes on a Seven Samurai/Magnificent Sevenesque quest to recruit Arthur Curry a/k/a the Broseidon…er, Aquaman (Jason Momoa); former athlete and now resident cyborg, Victor Stone (Ray Fisher); and brilliant but directionless speedster Barry Allen (Erza Miller) in order to face the god-like entity known as Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) from collecting objects of power known as Mother Boxes which, when united, will bring about a literal apocalypse.

Sounds like the makings of an epic. It certainly looks epic. As with most of these films, the CGI visuals are stunning to behold. But that’s as far as the epic sense goes. It should feel epic, and  not solely due to the uniting of these characters. Themes of deconstruction, rebirth, and redemption, and the threat of the end of all that is are as replete here for each character as they were in the recently-released Thor: Ragnarok.  But unlike that film, they’re not handled as deftly.

Part of this stems from a disjointed story flow and narrative, an expected result when a production is as troubled as Justice League was. Zack Snyder is the credited director, but Joss Whedon was asked to step in mid-to-post production to complete the task when personal issues forced Snyder to abdicate his role (Whedon is given a screenwriter credit alongside Chris Terrio, belying the extent of his contributions)…and perhaps some not-so-personal issues as well. Speaking conjectureally, it is highly arguable that the poor critical reception of the dour entries Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, weighed against the critical and financial success of the more upbeat and inspiring Wonder Woman, plus the reported amount of re-shoots, contributed to the haphazard nature and tonal shift of the film. Put succinctly, it has "too many cooks in the kitchen". It's a patchwork film, with Cliffs Notes story beats replace fleshed-out story. Characters arrive at certain points only because of plot requirements as opposed to the story leading them there, requiring a complete leaps in logic in some cases (due to scenes being excised during editing is up for debate). A more egregious storytelling sin is that this film's plot requires a presumption of a priori knowledge. Hence, many events and conditions are either left unexplained or unknown unless you’re among the initiated (i.e. superhero/DC comic book fans). Anything to propel the story forward and fit in as much of its impressively named cast as possible. It doesn’t help that some of these moments coincide with scenes that exist solely to set up another DC movie. Cool! It’s Mera (Amber Heard) you would think…if you knew who she was from the comics. The movie doesn’t have the time to name her; its almost break-neck pace moving in such a way that it comes across as perfunctory, severely muting the depth that the film does contain. This lack of development extends to the film's "Big Bad". Despite the character’s portentous buildup in BvS, Hinds’ Steppenwolf is mighty in power but singular in dimension. He manages to present himself as a credible threat to the League in terms of power, but his one-note nature robs him of any sense of menace. Further, the CGI nature of the character is obvious enough to be distracting; an unfortunate condition that extends into the fight scenes with other characters. Speaking of the action scenes, they vary in terms of quality. Some of the scenes are wonderfully rendered, while others either show their CGI weakness, and a few are less thrilling than they should be. Perhaps the lack of definition of the actual threat bleeds into the stakes of each encounter. The audience doesn't really get what's at stake...unless, again, you're "in the know." 

As aforesaid, Justice League represents a tonal shift from the more grim and gritty nature of the films that preceded it. It's peppered with moments designed to effect a more uplifting resonance, such as incorporating elements that, depending on one's outlook, can be either inspired influence or blatant rip-offs; a smattering of Tolkein here, a sprinkling of Mary Shelly there...oh, didn't I see this in Avengers: Age of Ultron…beats so recognizable that they threaten to take one out of the story. 

Even the score reflects this change in mood. A welcomed respite from the previous films cacophonous scorings, Danny Elfman’s orchestrations not only teeters into Ultron territory (unsurprising, given that he co-scored that film), but peppers his more lyrical music with acoustically motifs inspired from other adventurous, heroic scores of the past (close your eyes and you can hear a snippet from Jerry Goldsmith’s The Shadow here or the rousing chords from John Debney’s Cutthroat Island there). But most distinctly, Elfman incorporates themes from the Big Three’s cinematic past, including his own Batman contribution, Zimmer/Junkie XL’s theme for the Amazing Amazon, and one of John Williams’ most recognizable pieces. The cynic would say that this is acoustical emotional pandering to associate past triumphs with this film to bolster it. The critic, found it a joy to experience them in a multiplex again. The cynic would decry this as a film created by committee to distance itself from its past darker turn in order to maximize revenue. This only makes sense since any major studio release is a financial venture looking to maximize its initial investment. Unfortunately, it is blatant in its design. Conversely, it’s this welcomed change in tonality that the Warner/DC brand of films need.

Indeed, this new, relatively light-hearted tonality is personified in the characters. For example, in the changed perceptions of The Batman, whose outlook has changed after witnessing Superman's (Henry Cavill, whose character's presence is felt throughout and colors the events of the film) sacrifice in BvS, and Diana (whose origin undergoes a slight retcon from her eponymous film) struggles with her own loss. They are emblematic of the film's biggest strength: it’s exploration of the interpersonal dynamics of the newly-minted League. This drives the film as much as seeing them use their abilities in unison. The break out character is easily Miller’s Allen; his fish-out-of-water personality endearingly provides much of the film’s organic humor. That aquatic description may seem more apt to another Leaguer, but Jason Momoa is very much at home in his character’s radically-changed-from-source-material skin. If this is his and the filmmaker’s attempt to put lame Aquaman jokes to rest, they’ve succeeded in spades. His charmingly macho-yet-sensitive surfer bro take of the character adds a wrinkle that plays well off against the other characters…enough to overshadow Affleck’s Batman. Nevertheless, both Batman and Wonder Woman continue their own arcs from their previous films, leading to some very satisfying results. Arguably, the least compelling character is Ray Fisher's Stone, but that is solely in comparison to that of his co-stars. His is a strong performance; one that pays off in a very satisfying moment for his character's fans. There are too many names to mention, but special note go to both Amy Adams and Diane Lane, returning as Lois Lane and Martha Kent, respectively, whose shared emotional arc grounds the film in poignant humanity. To say more would be to reveal more (especially given one aspect that's practically an open secret). But, suffice it to say, the actors are clearly having a blast in their roles. They have a chemistry unique to themselves that keep them from becoming a carbon copy of The Avengers. They make their characters come to life, and the bond they present evokes the sense of family that the best Justice League comic book and animated shows excelled at. 

Justice League, for all its flaws, is a good, entertaining film that had the potential to be so much more. It’s disjointed nature and narrative hiccups mar what could have been a great adventure; one that should have merited uniting these "super friends" on screen in live action. However, its the charm in the performances of its central cast that save it from being merely serviceable...and it's just way too cool to see them on the big screen. Pay close attention to the opening scene of the film to get a sense of what the film was going for and, to a certain degree, succeeds in. At the very least, these are characters are deserving of a Ted Knight intro.

*P.S.  Kudos go to a certain actor and character; the latter of which hasn't been that bright, inspirational, and badass in quite some time.

** Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
     Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
     Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Martson.
     Aquaman created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger.
     The Flash created by Carmine Infantino, Robert Kanigher, and John Broome.
     Cyborg created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.
     Steppenwolf, Mother Box, Darkseid, parademons and The Fourth World created by Jack "The               King" Kirby.
     Justice League created by Gardner Fox.

Monday, November 6, 2017

DROPPING THE HAMMER: "Thor: Ragnarok" Is Deconstruction, Reconstruction, And Surpasses Its Entertainment Function

Ask an average movie goer what their top five Marvel Studios films are, and chances are the Thor series of films wouldn't be anywhere near that list. It’s reasonably safe to say that if it weren't for The Incredible Hulk (2008), either Thor (2011) or Thor: The Dark World (2013) would fall at the bottom. While both films were commercially successful, they ran the spectrum critically. Even the Honest Trailers crew succinctly summed up what most people were probably thinking: "Prepare for a film that only exists so non-nerds will recognize the blonde guy in The Avengers."

The truth is that Marvel's Thor, both as character and cinematic concept, gets a bad rap. If they carried any fault, it's that they're too “lofty”, suffering from the so-called "Superman curse" in that he's too powerful and otherworldly to be even remotely relateable…this despite the fact that, embarked on a character journey from a narcissistic (albeit charming) Nordic frat boy to the hero he is. Yet audience reception was not as kind to him as it was to, say, Chris Evans' interpretation of Captain America. The argument against the Thor series was that it was some was too "dry". Except these films have had one not-so-secret weapon in their arsenal. A weapon that have carried both these films yet still remained untapped of their full that the recent otherwise ill-fated Ghostbusters reboot recognized and exploited to the fullest; making it the highlight of an otherwise derided film.

That weapon is Chris Hemsworth.

In films like the aforementioned Ghostbusters and the Vacation reboot, Chris Hemsworth has shown he's more than just a pretty face; he's got comedic chops to spare. Director Taika Waititi and screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost understand that and utilize this resource, and creating one of, if not the, best Marvel Studio films.

The film throws out the proverbial baby and bath water by jettisoning the majority of Thor's previous supporting cast to focus on Thor's own journey. Thor (Hemsworth) has been seeking the Infinity Stones to no avail. Upon his return to Asgard and discovery of Loki's (Tom Hiddleston) deception from the end of The Dark World, he embarks on a search for Odin which puts him at odds against the evil Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett). The ensuing battle leads to both the loss of his fabled Mjolnir and strands him on the battle planet Sakaar, captured by the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who, in turn, sells him to a being known only as The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and is forced to face off against his one-time teammate, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, playing the green giant in both motion capture and voice for the first time). Thor must free himself to save Asgard from Hela's evil lest Ragnarok finally consume it.

That description doesn't even begin to describe the controlled madness that Waititi presents on screen. The film as a whole is not only a love letter to Thor co-creator Jack “The King” Kirby (in more than just visuals come to life), and fellow Marvel artists Walt Simonson and John Bescuma, but also to Frank Frazetta, Boris Valejro, and whole 1970's/1980's fantasy aesthetic; one that is bolstered by the sublime score as provided by Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh. The film is a sight to behold, one that fully embraces its source material in a way that few films of this type do, yet manages to stay grounded in humanity. As a title, "Ragnarok" completely fits contextually for all its protagonists are beaten and stripped down both figuratively and literally.  Given that Thor is arguably the “least popular Avenger”, Waititi is allowed to take more risks with the characters. Thor is “shorn” in more ways than one. Normally, such a deconstructive approach would be a cause for the type of sturm und drang the films of Marvel's "Distinguished Competition" are mostly known for. However, the director manages to strike a very satisfying balance between pathos and humor. This film doesn't eschew “fun”, but fully embraces it. It’s sense of wonder and humor evolves organically from the story, yet this is no Guardians of the Galaxy riff.  Ragnarok has its own distinctive voice, created in chorus by a cast of actors looking like they’re having the best time of their careers.

Devoid of supporting players specifically designed to humanize his character, Hemsworth finally is allowed to shoulder the burden of carrying the film…if a burden it was. This is the most relaxed and at home Hemsworth has ever been as Thor; his natural charm and comedic timing come out effortlessly, but still manages to carry the weight of his character's heroic arc. It's easily his best performance as the character. Tom Hiddleston’s “Loki” is as mischievous and rakish as ever, but he undergoes his own character arc that sees highs and lows and engenders not a small amount of poignancy. As does Sir Anthony Hopkins as “Odin”, who manages to provide the most startling yet affecting character arc in the little screen time afforded him.

Given that the story is heavily adapted from Marvel's "Planet Hulk" comic book storyline, it's a no-brainer that The Hulk would feature...and almost single-handedly steals the film. Ruffalo's Hulk has evolved despite still being very much an "Id" creature. He has his own deconstructive character arc; one that will presumably pay off in the forthcoming Avengers films. He is by turns frightening and petulant, yet altogether entertaining. Thompson's "Valkyrie" provides an antagonistic foil for the Thunder God, a departure from the star-crossed lovers conceit provided by Jane Foster (whose absence is explained in clever yet perfunctory manner), which provides a spark that was lacking. Jeff Jeff Goldblum (Go with it. Here, it's a very good thing). Waititi appears (in motion capture) as “Korg” a gladiator fearsome of presence but benign in demeanor who provides his own moments of comic relief. As "Skurge the Executioner", Karl Urban manages to be both vile and sympathetic all at once. Idris Elba wanted a more prominent role as “Heimdall” after his limited action in The Dark World, and here he got his wish and he looks like he’s having a ball. But special mention must go to Cate Blanchett as "Hela". Hers is a very measured performance. With all the freedom of expression afforded to the other characters, Blanchett knows that her performance must be dialed down. Not an easy trick when the character is supposed to be menacing and nigh-unstoppable.  It's not to say she doesn't have her own moments of mirth, for she does. She avoids going over the top lest her character delve into parody. Hers is easily the best villains of the Thor films, and on par with the best the Marvel films has offered thus far. The smattering of cameos, both in character and celebrity, don't hurt either.

Some of Marvel Studio's critics have cried foul on their "cookie cutter" approach film making. However, Ragnarok cannot be accused of that, for all the flash and humor, there is a substantive heart. Pay close attention and you realize that its infused with a mythic hero's; one that entails themes loss and sacrifice, of remorse and redemption. It also does away with any consideration of "the status quo". It's "anything goes" aesthetic reaches far beyond the visuals, infused in the story itself. 

Thor: Ragnarok, in essence, surpasses any promise the previous films hinted at. It's a visual free-for-all which embraces its concepts and realizes them in visually striking fashion. The storytelling is tight and no character feels like a throwaway (well, almost none).  What few flaws exist are so minor that they’re not even worth mentioning. If this film isn’t the best of the Marvel staple, it certainly ranks above them. Never thought that would be said about a Thor film? Go experience it on the big screen because if this film had a mission statement, it would be “How d’ya like me now?”  

>Hammer drop<