Tuesday, December 13, 2022


 The American Culture Critic blog is getting its own podcast.

Watch this space for the first episode, coming soon. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022



Matt Reeves' "The Batman" is a dense film. At three hours, it is overlong, filled with enough twists and turns to require Dramamine, and it has the most controversial lead casting since 1988. It is also perhaps the closest we've ever seen the comic book Batman translated to the screen. 

Gotham City is a municipality under siege. An individual known only as "The Riddler" (Paul Dano) is grisly targeting the city's elite. Lieutenant James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) is assigned to the case but his competence is called into question for his partnership with The Batman (an extremely effective Robert Pattinson). The duo's investigation is further complicated by the presence of Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) and Oswald Cobblepot (Colin Farrell), whose involvement leads them further down a rabbit hole that leads to what could be the destruction of Gotham and its citizenry. 

Director and co-screenwriter Matt Reeves reportedly told  Christopher Nolan that it was his intention to unseat "The Dark Knight" (2008) as the ultimate "Batman" film. While that will be a matter of debate for years to come, this film is a major contender for the title. It's reminiscent of Nolan's first effort, "Batman Begins" (2005) in that Gotham is itself a realized character with it's own identity; one without the matte genius of Anton Furst's Gotham for "Batman" (1989). Gotham City is nihilistically and darkly oppressive, where the light is subsumed and overwhelmed by the shadows even in the daytime. It could easily fit into the 90's aesthetic and intensity of David Fincher's "Se7en" (1995) and the noirish sensibilities of Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995); aesthetics that are bolstered by the stunning cinematography by Greig Fraser who, under Reeves' eye, turns each scene as a painting. And for the purists, Easter eggs abound that honor the past while bringing The Bat to the present. 

Casting directors Lucy Bevan and Cindy Tolan should get bonuses for the talent they amassed on the screen. Jeffrey Wright is the most proactive not-yet-Commissioner Gordon ever put to film. Zoe Kravitz' Selina Kyle conveys the felinis catus traits without devolving to caricature; a fully realized individual in her own right with understandable motivations. Further, her chemistry with the lead is downright and naturally electrifying. John Turturro channels his inner Don Corleone to bring mobster Carmine Falcone to life, yet bringing a restraint to his performance that reminds one of why he was the darling of indie film. Perhaps the most entertaining performance of all comes by Colin Farrell, practically unrecognizable under the prosthetics to bring Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin to life. He is clearly having the time of his life in the role and brings much needed levity this heavy film needs. Paul Dano's "Riddler" is no comic character. He is terrifying in ways that are almost banal and way too close to reality. He evinces moments of Frank Gorshin (look him up, young'ins) without the glee. His character is disturbed in a way that shakes one to the core. He could be Keyzer Soze, Jeffrey Dahmer; an animal in human form. However, his Riddler is also imbued in tragedy, one that calls out a major issue with the Batman mythos in these modern times. 

The biggest question is, does the transition from one creature of the night to another work here? Back in the late 80s, I personally gave "Mr. Mom" (Michael Keaton) a chance and was pleasantly surprised (as was the rest of the world, given the high anticipation for the forthcoming "The Flash" attests to). Robert Patterson is more than just "Cedric Diggory" or "Edward". Just seeing "The Lighthouse" (2019) could convince naysayers in my opinion. As the titular character, Pattinson delivers the honest goods. His Batman is cold, focused, intimidating, and intelligent. He effectively uses his body language to convey menace in an outfit that could invite ridicule in lesser hands, and the rage he evinces is shockingly palatable. Some would take issue with his interpretation of alter ego Bruce Wayne as he seems to play it like an emo goth (an analogy that ties in with the role Pattinson is most famous [until now] for). But if one pays close attention, it befits this character interpretation. It's a performance that merits the fact that this is the first Batman film since "Batman Begins" where the focus is primarily ON Batman/Bruce Wayne. He's the main character, not a guest star in his own film; which makes the question of which is the mask and which is the reality all the more potent. (The film does provide its own answer to that question). If there's any actor that gets the short shrift in screen time, it's Andy Serkis as faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth. However, Reeves ensures that the character, and his dynamic with Bruce, isn't wasted; leading to a powerfully poignant development. 

In this writer's estimation, Michael Giacchino can do no bloody wrong. Though repetitive, his score is a character in its own right, giving auditory heft to the unfolding events, capturing each moment's mood and ambiance. It in turn thrums and rhapsodizes, engendering anxiety, tension, fear, and romance. 

This film will be a divisive one, as it is fully reflective of a post-2000 zeitgeist. It is, as all good art is, timely as there are hints of climate change and political commentary. It's definitely a younger generation's Batman. But that's how it should be. Every generation deserves its own iteration. The fact that Matt Reeves is able to deliver timelessly recognizable characters and myths into modern sensibilities, is nothing short of a revelation. 

The bat signal shines again. Batteries to power, turbines to speed. Roger and move out to your local theater and watch the experience that is "The Batman". 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Some Kind of Wonderful: Wonder Woman 84 (a/k/a WW84) Is A Noble Effort With Mixed Results (Minor Spoilers)

Following on the heels of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) (and released just before the controversial Justice League (2017)), the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman (2017) took what (or rather, who) was the best part of BvS and built a foundation that was more than just a film; it became a cultural touchstone that transcended its comic book and cinematic milieus. In short, Wonder Woman is a tough act to follow. "Is", not "was". The colors are brighter, the bombast is greater, the stakes seem higher, but despite attempting to tackle some pretty hefty and current culturally relevant themes, WW84 attempts to do too much with mixed results.

The year is 1984. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is an antiquities researcher at the Smithsonian Institute who still finds the time to don the red, blue, and gold; rescuing civilians yet somehow remaining an urban legend, all the while still PINEing  for the decades-deceased Steve Trevor (as in, Chris Pine; Star Trek; Unstoppable). She crosses paths with wallflower/co-worker Barbara Minerva (Kristin Wiig;  Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters), who is in possession of a magical stone that can grant wishes to whomsoever possesses it, at significant cost. This puts her and Diana in the crosshairs of the television personality with the mega-watt smile and chutzpah to match, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, The Mandalorian; Game of Thrones). This leads to a domino effect of events that will not only test Diana’s mettle, but may cause her to sacrifice all she holds dear, including herself.

It is an ambitious film in attempt and scope with resonant themes that, given the time period wherein these events take place, show that not much has changed. Yet like the mythical Icarus, its reach exceeds its grasp. At 2 hours and 30-plus minutes, the film’s pacing is one of its major faults. By the same token, it’s pacing is understandable. Jenkins takes the time to allow the characters to breathe in development. However, there are times when those scenes continue long after their point is made. Further, there are a few plot holes and leaps of logic that undermine the film’s narrative flow. Another issue is that of the special effects. The film is sumptuous to look at. Definitely brighter in visuals and in tone (at least, on the surface), but at times a few effects, including some involving the Lasso of Truth, look like they needed one more polish before release. But underneath all the 80’s glitz and glamour, Jenkins and fellow screenwriters Geoff Johns and David Callaham, can’t help but bring our current concerns to the fore. Political commentary aside, we are living in a year where we’ve faced despair and loss daily. Who now wouldn’t want to wish away our troubles, or wish our loved ones back into our lives? The film’s conceit is the old adage of being careful what one wishes for...which is both necessary yet hard to take given that we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. Yet it’s one that gives Godot’s Diana an extra dose of humanity that grants an almost-all-powerful demi-goddess some relatability.

Speaking of the narrative, it is peppered with echoes and beats from DC films from the past, namely Superman II, Batmans Returns, Forever, and Robin. The homages are there if one looks for them, but executed in such a way that it’s not distracting for those not in the know. The action set pieces, when they finally do take place, are engagingly well executed, even if it does take some time, and the aforementioned leaps in logic, to get there. Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly diverse and helps carry the story along, even if at times he left the temp track to Marvel’s Ant-Man’s acoustics on repeat (not to mention a key BvS underscore).

Fault cannot be found with the actors, whose performances are the best part of the entire affair. Gal Gadot’s Diana is a woman in transition between Wonder Woman and the warrior we meet in BvS. While still beguiling, there’s an added pain behind her eyes and aloofness in her carriage. But, as with the first film, the heart of the proceedings is the relationship between Diana and the newly resurrected Steve Trevor. They bring in the necessary humor and poignancy that bolster the movie. Their chemistry together is as electric as in the first film, and as genuine as one can get. Theirs is a team of equals, each leaning on the others’ strength even at the time of their greatest weakness. In Wonder Woman, it served as that film’s spine. Here, it serves the same function while almost beubg enough to forgive the film's faults. It follows a mythological hero's journey trope for Diana, and anyone who is not affected by their journey has citrine stone for a heart.

Kristin Wiig borrows heavily from Michelle Pfeiffer in her portrayal of the (unnamed) Cheetah, yet surprisingly makes Barbara a formidable, menacing character in her own right, with understandable motivations. Perhaps the most challenging of roles, Pedro Pascal’s con-man-entrepreneur-turned-world-dominator Max Lord is the epitome of the 80s “greed is good” Gordon Gekko/Tom Vu/Tim Robbins mentality. Again, without getting political, Pascal manages to turn in a performance which is at times over-the-top camp, yet totally in keeping with the time period…yet, even with that, he turns in moments of dramatic gravitas that belie the bluster. He serves as cautionary tale of ego unchained; one which is made all the more terrifying when taken metatextually. As a whole, their combined performances lead to a rounding climax that doesn’t end in the way a standard super hero film would…and is all the better for it.

For all its issues, WW84 should be lauded for being something different, something new. Think of it as a James Bond film pre-2006, when the films were only tangentially connected by character alone. It tries to do too much to varying degrees of success. Yet despite its logistical and pacing issues, WW84 is, at its heart, a fun movie that tries to show that despite our hardships and personal turmoil in a world seemingly gone mad, hope does exist if one has the fortitude to grasp it…even if that message does seem heavy handed at times. Despite the hiccups, it embraces the, dare I say, wonder.



Wednesday, November 6, 2019

PRESCRIBED MEDICINE: Make An Appointment To Visit "Doctor Sleep"

Sequels are tricky things. They rise and fall on a number of factors, not the least of which being the time gap between them; especially when a film is considered beloved and iconic, as in the case of The Shining (1980), which was released thirty-nine(!) years ago. One would expect that given those factors, no attempt at continuation could live up to that legacy. However, Doctor Sleep offers cure to that ailment of doubt. 

The film takes place decades after the events of The Shining, where we find a grown-up yet down-on-his-luck Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor), a vagabond who uses women and drink to try and drown the echoes of his traumatic past and dull his “shining” ability. However, when he comes across of similarly-gifted girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who has become the target of a nomadic group of “shine” (or “steam”) eaters led by a sorceress known as Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), a reluctant Danny races against time to keep the girl alive. The road they embark upon leads them back to his past, where he must put the demons, both literal and figurative, finally to bed.

Despite Stephen King’s well-documented distaste for Stanley Kubrik’s adaptation of his earlier work, director/screenwriter Mike Flanagan wisely adapts the King-penned sequel novel as a direct sequel to Kubrik’s film, enlisting McGregor’s ability to emulate previously-established characters to help weave the events of this film into the overall narrative. McGregor completely nails Danny’s despairing, rudderless existence; an ironic consideration given that it’s his performance that anchors the film. The attention to detail is nothing short of exquisite; lovingly slavish (as well as one subtle in-story parallel to McGregor's most famous, also inherited role). The story homages and parallels the original in many ways; some obvious, some subtle, but melds organically within the narrative’s structure without distracting from the proceedings.

In this day and age, wherein the cinema has further embraced the so-called “roller coaster ride” nature of modern franchise blockbusters, an age where mutant powers of mind-manipulation and such are evidenced with increasing regularity, the question becomes how to differentiate its expression between the milieus of super-heroics and horror. The answer lies in characterization. Ferguson’s “Rose” may not have the mania of Jack Nicholson’s “Jack Torrence” or the chilling presence of Tim Curry or Bill Skarsgard, but she is a siren: beguiling, chilling, and deadly. Her troupe, the “True Knot” are also menacingly evil, with the standouts being "Crow Daddy" (Zahn McClarnon) and "Snakebite Andi" (Emily Alyn Lind), and the troupe engages in one of the most uncomfortably horrific scenes ever put to film, with the barest minimum of gore. The most horrific aspect, however, is the villains’ banality despite their supernatural abilities. The film’s pacing is slowly methodical, but never dull. Each scene is kinetic even when still and, just like Danny’s intentionally sublimated power, threatens to burst at any moment. Even more effective is the sense of Rose’s presence even when she’s not on screen. The Newton Brothers’ score also contains homages to Wendy Carlos’ orchestrations from The Shining, while using them in ways that ramp up that aforementioned tension within stillness. 

This film echoes James Mangold’s Logan (2017) in terms of a grizzled veteran taking on the tutelage of an equally powerful adolescent, following similar beats. But unlike "Laura/X-23" of that film, Kyliegh Curran’s "Abra" is much more savvy, self-possessed, and self-assured. In many ways, she’s the film’s driving force. Her performance is such that she stands equal to McGregor, though she also has moments which remind us that she’s still a young teen involved in events beyond her control. Nevertheless, her character is a force to be reckoned with and Curran sells it. To say more would be to give away key plot points and surprises but suffice it to say that Carl Lumbly, Henry Thomas, Alex Esso, Cliff Curtis, and (especially) Jacob Tremblay do justice to their respective roles. The film is also sumptuous to witness. The cinematography by Michael Fimognari is sublime; it’s expansive nature quixotically enhancing the film’s oppressively bleak tone. The special effects are top notch with nary a blip to be found.

Much like the recently-released El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story (2019), Doctor Sleep continues the tale of a character whose fate was left uncertain at the conclusion of their original story. And, just like that film, Sleep provides a-more-than-satisfying continuation. It expands the mythos of the original story without diminishing it’s mystery or impact, yet also stands on its own foundation with moments and performances that will stay with you even after the credits have rolled. Far from having a somnambulist effect, Doctor Sleep may keep you up at night. It sucks you in and, like a vivid dream, you’ll have a hard time waking up…not that you would want to.

*Special thanks to Ian Erik Morris for editorial assist. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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