Friday, June 2, 2017

NOW THE WORLD IS READY FOR YOU: "Wonder Woman" Is, In A Word, Wonderful

It’s rare when a film merits effusive praise. It’s even rarer when the film is part of a studio franchise wherein the reception of the previous entries was decidedly mixed. However, Wonder Woman, the latest in Warner Bros.' line of live-action DC Entertainment films, deserves the accolades it earns. It breaks the mold by being (relatively) faithful to the character and her world, delivering a cohesive, entertaining tale featuring a charismatic lead.

What sets this film apart from its predecessors, beginning with 2013’s Man of Steel? Coherency of plot and motivation, for one. The plot is straightforward: On the island of Themyscira lives an Amazonian race, led by the regal Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), whose purpose is to safeguard the world from the machinations of the war god Ares. After a millennium, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of Hippolyta, witnesses and rescues Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from a WWI fighter plane crash. Coming to realize that Ares has taken a foothold in “the world of men”, she leaves the island to fulfill the Amazons’ purpose, unaware the trials, truths, and crisis of faith that await her. Working from a screenplay by Allen Heinberg (with story assist by Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs, based on characters created by William Moulton Marston), Director Patty Jenkins does not obfuscate the narrative with unnecessary parallels or tacked-on “C” plots. Any developments flow organically without distracting tangents. She gets both the character and her world, and subtly adds continuity to Diana's "future" appearance in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), highlighting her attention to detail.

Oh, the film does bear Snyder’s signature visual hallmarks…the Raphaelesque paintings come to life, the slow motion action sequences…but, in comparison with the previous Snyder-directed DC films, here they are used judiciously; just enough to enhance the story without existing for its own sake. Jenkins understands that visuals and action set pieces are all well and good, but they’re rendered meaningless without grounding humanity, and that’s what both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine provide in spades.

Here, Gadot conveys the nascent-Wonder Woman’s naivete beguilingly without compromising her conviction, evincing vulnerability within her (relative) invulnerability; a contradiction perhaps, but even this shows that Jenkins directs with a complete grasp of the character, as Wonder Woman as always been a conundrum: Warrior as emissary of peace. Godot’s charisma carries the film, and her having served in the Israeli army adds credibility to her action sequences. Her Diana is poised, measured, and assured. While she could arguably carry this film on her own, her impact is heightened immensely by Chris Pine, who gives Trevor a three-dimensionality his comic counterpart arguably lacked (and managing to be subtle enough to separate his Trevor from another captain Pine is famous for playing). He’s a competent soldier with a vulnerability that does not undermine his masculinity. Given the nature of his role, it’s expected that he would provide comic relief. However, those comedic bits evolve naturally from the story without compromising the character’s integrity.  To say more about his character’s impact would give away much of the plot. Needless to say, the chemistry between he and Godot feels more honest and real than in most films of this sort. Like the best of relationships, they balance each other out, and the story allows them to explore the polar aspects of femininity and masculinity without sacrificing either aspect in each other. Simply put, the two of them, and their shared hero's journey, form the heart of the entire enterprise. Their emotional beats and climaxes resonate and ground the film.

The supporting players are top notch, clearly having fun with the material even as they imbue it with a gravitas that grounds the more fantastical elements. Said Taghmaoui (“Sameer”), Ewen Bremner (“Charlie”), and Eugene Brave Rock (“The Chief”) as Diana’s commando team all provide back up in performance as well as character, with Said being the standout of the three. Connie Nielsen’s regal Hippolyta is by turns imperious and vulnerable, concerned over her daughter’s fate. David Thewlis is one of those reliable actors who never gives a bad performance, and his turn as Sir Patrick is no exception. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Danny Huston as Commander Ludendorff. Huston is a more nuanced actor than the material provides. It can be argued that in his case nuance must be sacrificed to the plot. Nevertheless, his performance comes off as clunky and uneven.

The special effects are top notch, save for a few hiccups (especially in relation to Diana’s Lasso of Truth), and there are some minor plot inconsistencies, but nothing so outstanding that would lessen any enjoyment derived from the film. Jenkins’ direction is deftly assured, with a brisk pacing that engages and makes its two hour, twenty minute run time seem less than. Other nice touches are the subtle callbacks to not only Wonder Woman’s television history (evident in the very first shot of Diana), but also of a seminal superhero film which came out around the same time (of which one scene in this film blatantly, lovingly homages). In other words, the film’s heart extends beyond that of the leads’ performances. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ channels his inner David Arkenstone for a score that is lush and energetic while managing to elevate Hans Zimmer/Tom Holkenberg’s "Wonder Woman" theme, its acoustics more lyrical and balletic than the cacophony of sound the other DC Extended Universe scores are known for.

Wonder Woman is not just a triumph as a superhero film, but as a film, period. It is by turns fun and dramatic, full of pathos and hope. Gal Gadot fulfills the promise only hinted at by her woefully short stint in BvS, and the film thoroughly entertains from beginning to end. It’s a film that belies the anti-female heroic lead rhetoric even as it transcends the argument. Hopefully, this heralds a newfound appreciation for quality in Warner Bros. superhero films going forward. A film version of this character has been long overdue, but the final product shows that it was well worth the wait. To crib from the earlier live-action incarnation…you’re a wonder, Wonder Woman.

Monday, May 29, 2017

TALL TALE TOLD: "Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales" Is A Tale Enjoyable Retold

After fourteen years, viewing Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films is kind of like experiencing the ride they're based on, akin to a warm, comfortable blanket. You wait in line, knowing nothing has really changed, but still willing to open yourself to the magic recapturing the feeling and nostalgia of the very first experience. On the flip side, you risk irksome disappointment when a glitch or two ruins the ride. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) felt like the latter condition. Despite being a box office hit (minor in comparison to the previous films' individual box office booty), it's reception was both critically and commercially mixed to the extent that the franchise's future was in question. Further exacerbating the uncertainty was Depp's floundering standing as a box office draw (The Lone Ranger, Mordechai, and Black Mass all flopping resoundingly, though ironically in the latter's case it was one of the best performances of his career), With all these issues factoring in, what's a production to do in order to mitigate the possible damages?

The answer seems to be go back to the beginning. 

Almost a decade in story after the events of POTC: At World's End (2007), young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), son of the cursed captain of the Flying Dutchman, William Turner (Orlando Bloom), enlists the aid of the recently captured and (further) disgraced Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp), who is still without his beloved Black Pearl (after a fashion) and crew, to recover Poseidon's Trident, an artifact with the capability of destroying all sea curses. Also on the hunt for this artifact is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), a horologist accused of witchcraft who also seeks the Trident for her own purpose. As the threesome embark on this mission, they are pursued not only by British naval commander Scarfield (David Wenham, The Lord Of The Rings trilogy) and frienemy Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, looking even more resplendent this time out) but also by the spectral Capitan Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men; Skyfall) who seeks vengeance upon Jack for his ghostly condition.

Some moisturizer should clear that right up.

If some of this sounds vaguely familiar (at least, more familiar than usual when dealing with sequels), that'd because it seems screenwriters Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rosario dusted off the script for POTC: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (2003) (which Rosario co-wrote) and tweaked the details. Normally, such an instance would seem egregious, but it works because its used as a template for bringing the series full circle, and actually manages to seem fresh in its execution. 

One of the most obvious lessons learned between the last film and this was to minimize the focus on Captain Jack (which may have been predicated by necessity of the Depp's purported behind-the-scenes shenanigans and personal upheaval. Google it if you're interested). 

I'll never tell.

As in the first film, before he became the face of the franchise, Jack Sparrow is better realized as part of an ensemble. Which leads to another mistake rectified from the last film, a stronger ensemble cast.  As the Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann analogues, both Scodelario and Thwaites are not only engagingly charismatic on their own, but have a wholly palpable chemistry together. Regarding Barbossa, what can be said about Geoffrey Rush that hasn't been said before, other than this is perhaps the most poignant he has ever played the character. One of the biggest complaints from the last film was the underutilization of an actor of Ian McShane's caliber as "Blackbeard". Disney was certainly paying attention as the same cannot be said of Bardem as Salazar. His characterization is varied in scope, playing sympathies and menace deftly, making for one of the better realized of the series' villains. Returning Pirates alumni Kevin McNally ("Biggs"), Martin Klebba ("Marty"), Stephen Graham ("Scrum") and Angus Barnett ("Mullroy") are given more to do and add to the feeling of welcome nostalgia. Unfortunately, its not without its casting missteps, though not of the fault of the actors in any way (Wenham's Scarfield and Golshifteh Farahani as actual witch "Shansa"), but through the simple fact that the script doesn't know what to do with them. As far as Depp, his performance is somewhat uneven, varying in degrees from lazy (I suspect the major inebriation scenes did not involve acting whatsoever) to almost inspired. Luckily, its slightly more the latter than the former. 

The visuals and special effects are perhaps the best in this series, adding reality to the surreal. Geoff Zanelli elevates Klaus Badelt/Hans Zimmer's familiar themes, breathing new life in them even as he provides a fresh lighter acoustical touch that separates this score from the rehashed lazy strum und drang that plagued On Stranger Tides. Its a more intimate score that enhances the more emotional bent of this outing and adds to the circular heft of this tale, wherein the end meets the beginning. This film uses the past without becoming mired in it, while bringing events and story lines full circle.

Complete with retro fashion.

Despite the odds against it, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a tale worth being experienced. Like the ride that spawned it, you'll leave the film satisfied with a smile on your face. And if this the sunset by which the franchise sails away (as the story strongly hints), it is a fine tale for it to end on. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

REMIXED: "Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2" Succeeds Despite A Looming Shadow.

Sometimes, the best expectation is no expectation.

Remember when Marvel Studios first announced their intention to produce a film based on an obscure Marvel comic called "Guardians of the Galaxy"? A collective head scratch ensued. To the uninitiated, the question was "who are the Guardians of the Galaxy". To those familiar with comics, the question was "why the Guardians of the Galaxy".  There were concerns that Marvel was about to make its first tactical error in the planning of what had become a box-office juggernaut of successful films. Expectations ranged from low to 'nil...until the film was finally released.  No one expected how much fun, and ultimately how successful, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) ultimately became (including this reviewer). It was so crowd-pleasingly good, that it set the bar high for its inevitable sequel. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2., as good as it is, falls short of it.

(At this point, I should caveat in interests of fairness that this author went into this film with those same aforementioned expectations, so some of these points may not be as salient as they would be in a completely unbiased review. Regardless, they are as they are).

Some time after the events of the first film, the Guardians, consisting of Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are hired by an alien race to protect a powerful set of intergalactic batteries. When Rocket ironically steals the the batteries, it sets off a chain of events that attracts the attention of the celestial being known as "Ego" (Kurt Russell) which leads young Quill not only to discover the secrets of his heritage but his possible destiny as well.

"Of course I'm celestial.  I was the last person Walt Disney thought of."

That's not to say that the movie isn't entertaining; it’s extremely so. However, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, by comparison, is a victim of its progenitor’s success.  Divested of the surprise factor, James Gunn, acting as both director and screenwriter, has to rely on characterization and plot to carry the film. While Vol 2 excels in the former, it’s stilted in the latter.

The majority of the plotting issues stem from the fact that the Guardians films are ensemble pieces, with "Big Names" attached to each character. As such, each character is given a spotlight, which means more scenes and extra run time. There’s definitely a sense that Marvel was paying attention concerning what worked in the previous film because the principal of remixed "escalation" is all over Vol. 2. In some cases, they work. In others, they lead to situations that go on longer than they should; which makes for a film, who’s run time is two-and-a-quarter hours, seem longer than it is (mostly in scenes involving Baby Groot, who is surprisingly NOT the breakout character in this film. More below). For instance, Drax should change his sobriquet from “the Destroyer” to “the Comedian”. Whereas his humor previously evolved naturally from a character trait, here it comes across as forced, with mixed results. Some of these issues could be resolved with tighter editing, but it leaves one to wonder what was left on the cutting room floor, given that what remained is still creative.

Another issue is that, in trying to balance the showcasing of characters as fairly as possible, the “B” plots are far more interesting than the “A”. That’s not to say that the main plot isn’t interesting; it’s to say that the peripheral story lines are more so. This development has more to do with the engaging performances by Michael Rooker as “Yondu” and Karen Gillan as “Nebula”, whose personal journeys are the most compellingly developed. While Pratt, Saldana, Batista, Cooper, and Diesel are all top notch in their own efforts, it’s Rooker’s that’s the breakout performance here, and the film is all the better for it. Returning to the Disney fold as the planetary Celestial “Ego”, Kurt Russell is an energetically engaging enigma. Pom Kelmentieff’s “Mantis” serves as a good foil Drax, in some ways reflective of the character as we first encountered him. Elizabeth Debicki’s courting typecasting with yet another cold-as-ice character, but her “Ayesha” is an arresting sight; an Oscar statuette come to fetching, angular life.

However, the faults are relatively minor considering the whole package. The film is an enjoyable romp with thematic heft. All of the actors, from the principals to the cameos (and there are a bunch of them, with many nods to Marvel Comics lore for the initiated), are clearly enjoying themselves to such a point that it's difficult not to be infected by their enthusiasm. Detractors might dismiss this film as another live action cartoon film, but it's one with resonance, earning its emotional beats in a way that one would have to have a heart of an (infinity) stone not to feel...feelings that are enhanced by the musical choices which, as with the first film, are as much a character in the film as the players. This time, however, each pop/rock entry is more thematically connected to the scenes they play in than before to great, and in one case hilarious, effect. Tyler Bates continues to convince Marvel Studios that he's their go-to scoring pro, delivering a score that is in turns rousing, comedic, and poignant. This film should definitely be viewed in IMAX and 3D, but one risks visual overload in doing so as it takes its 70's rock fantasy album cover aesthetic to an almost distracting extreme (a conceit that, going by the preview, the forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok will likely heavily borrow),

In essence, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2, may fall somewhat short of its predecessor, but it's still a high mark for the Marvel Studios film library. It's thrilling, engaging, and surprisingly heartfelt. Take a magic carpet ride to another galaxy far, far away.  You'll be glad you did. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

LOVE IT OR HATE IT: "Split" is M. Night Shyamalan's Best Film In Years.


"'Trauma' is 'Drama'" It's a statement I just made up (as far as I know, and apologies in advance to anyone who may have coined it first), but it also seems to be an edict that filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan relies upon, as his filmography attests. But never has this mantra been more evident than in his latest thriller Split, written and directed by Shyamalan, and starring James McAvoy (The X-Men reboot films, The Conspirator (2010)), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch (2015)) and stage-and-screen veteran Betty Buckley (Carrie (1976)), The Happening (2008)). In this film, Taylor-Joy plays “Casey”, a teen aged loner who, through an unfortunate twist of fate, is kidnapped alongside intended victims Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)) and her BFF Marcia (Jessica Sula, Honeytrap (2014)) by Kevin (McAvoy), a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (“DID”) and possessed of (or is that “by”?) twenty-three different and distinct personalities. It’s a race against time for Casey to outwit her captor(s) and free herself and her friends before Kevin’s nascent twenty-fourth personality is unleashed. 

Shyamalan has been a controversial and divisive cinematic auteur. Reception to his films has run the gamut from acclaim (The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000)) to ridicule (The Last Airbender (2010), After Earth (2013)). The low budget Split is perhaps his most challenging work. Trauma propels this film and examines its existence or lack can affect not only a person but the world around them, with one of its main considerations being the polarity of deep feeling versus disaffected superficiality; a theme that speaks to the polarizing nature to the film as a whole. It’s layered both thematically and in execution, demanding total immersive attention from the viewer. For anyone looking to be entertained and suspend thinking for almost two hours, this is not the film for you. Even scenes that seem innocuous and throwaway either add insight to the proceedings or ratchets up the tension. However, unlike most of his films post-Unbreakable, none of this layering feels gratuitous or self-indulgent. Everything is measured (at least until the climax) and effectively makes its point without belaboring it.

Unfortunately, one of the film’s other difficulties stems from its very nature as a character-driven thriller; one wherein one of the actors is playing 24 different personalities. This leads to a lack of character focus in the beginning which is incongruously both asset and detriment to the film. No stranger to playing a character with a multiple personality disorder (see Filth (2013)), McAvoy ups the proverbial ante by playing a multitude of characters and doing so convincingly. His performance is subversively arresting, exhibiting fully realized personalities while at the same time exhibiting a sense of not quite being all there. Betty Buckley’s plays Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, whose almost-maternal patient relationship is at odds with her need to validate her unconventional treatment regarding his psychosis. As the primary damsel-in-distress, young Taylor-Joy is as mesmerizing as McAvoy, but for different reasons. She evinces a strength, maturity, and vulnerability that belies her age, yet still appropriate for her character. It’s layered performance both aesthetically and viscerally. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula’s supporting yet strong performances also bolster the proceedings. Personally speaking, there is not one performance that rings false, nor is there a moment that feels extraneous.

Oddly enough, the film is disturbing in a clinical fashion while it also cleverly subverts the conventions of the horror/thriller genre. Given the nature of the story and the main players, one would naturally expect the occurrence of creepy and repulsive themes of regarding older men and scantily-clad teens. Credit Shyamalan's direction wherein the creepy “ick” factor comes without titillation factor whatsoever. On the contrary, the first two-thirds of the film are positively antiseptic, where whatever horror is gleaned there comes from implication…provided the viewer is paying attention. Arguably, the only true moment of intimacy occurs in what is perhaps the movie’s most tragic and horrific scene; a scene made more effective because of that aforementioned layering, and perhaps one of the best scenes this director has ever executed. Yet still, the film, as a whole, is uncomfortable, eliciting conflicting yet wholly appropriate emotions, with moments of comedy and horror taking place simultaneously.

The (almost) totally original score by newcomer West Dylan Thordson is minimalist yet effective, blending into the proceedings and intensifying each scene without distractingly calling attention to itself. The cinematography by Michael Gioulakis is full of mood and imagery that draws one in and heightens the film's enveloping, oppressive, and terrifying atmosphere.

Of course, there’s that narrative hallmark that’s served to be both Shyalaman’s trademark and bane: the twist ending. All that will be said about it here as that it will either hit or miss…depending upon your familiarity with Shyamalan and his work. Needless to say, it will make you see the film in a completely different light.

What few flaws the film has does not negate the fact that this is the best film that Shyalaman has made in years. It’s a film that merits repeated watching as it is so densely, meticulously rich and sublime in its presentation and dialogue. In fact, it is arguably too dense, for it requires that the viewer's attention from the first second to the last. It also requires a major suspension of disbelief, but the story carries it to acceptability and the payoff is worth it.  It’s a thinking person’s thriller, one that will leave the viewer both repulsed and excited. Love it or hate it, Split will stay with you. 

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 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.