Thursday, July 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BREATHE DEEP: "Don't Breathe" Is A Surprisingly Good And Complex Film


Gazing downward from Olympian height...

Rows of abandoned, dilapidated, gutted houses…

Empty unkempt, foreboding streets, intersecting; gloomily criss-crossing...

Focus enlarging; crystallizing in slow, measured descent…

A hunched figure; seemingly Neanderthal...

Inexorably dragging a still, unmoving body down a street... 

Save for the crunch of disturbed gravel and asphalt, all is silence.

Such is the imagery that sets the tone for the latest horror film, Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead (2013)), written by Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues. It’s a simple but tense image; one that engenders a primal disquiet, yet arresting and fascinating. It image foreshadows nothing but grief, but is too compelling to turn away.

The best horror films aren’t the ones that feature the most blood or gore; they’re the ones that tap into the ”collective unconscious” and the culturally shared mythological imagery it possesses. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the producing team of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert really love their mythology. It’s evident in their creative output whether it’s adapting classical myths (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys), modern myths (Spider-Man), or creating their own (Xena: Warrior Princess; The Evil Dead franchise), and they do so in entertainingly subversive fashion.

In Detroit, Michigan, three youngsters Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead (2013)); her brainy best friend, Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners); and her lover, Money (Daniel Zovatto; Fear The Walking Dead) are small-time breaking and entering artists who steal goods to fence to finance their exodus from their economically depressed and hopeless circumstances. But the pickings are slim and slow going. Money’s fence, Trevor (Sergei Onopko), tells Money about a Vietnam vet known only as “The Blind Man” (Stephen Lang; Tombstone, Avatar), a disabled recluse who received a $300,000.00 settlement after a careless driver ran over and killed his daughter. Seeing that this would be the score that would be their ticket out of poverty, Money convinces the eager Rocky and reluctant Alex to perform one last job. From the moment the trio enters The Blind Man’s home, what starts out as a simple B&E job becomes a Jungian nightmare from which there may be no escape.

On the surface, it may seem like a run-of-the-mill slasher film. However, closer scrutiny reveals that this story takes its cues from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The cinematography by Pedro Luque evokes a labyrinthine milieu both out of doors and within The Blind Man’s home, where much of the action takes place. Director Alvarez’s clever and, in some cases, inventive use of camera shots, lighting (or lack thereof), and stillness heightens the “mouse caught in a maze” feeling that becomes more oppressively claustrophobic as the film progresses. The same rooms are revisited frequently throughout the film, taking on a new meaning and disquiet a simple change of perspective. They become intricate, irregular, twisting, confusing, and terrifying. The film touches upon the mythological themes of descent and rising from the underworld, and the fact that such journeys rarely, if ever, leave one unscathed.

But no mythological maze would be complete without a Minotaur.  Stephen Lang, with his buffed, leathered, withered countenance and grotesquely glassy blind eyes, gives a performance that epitomizes Minotaur made flesh. Operating in total darkness from without and within, his heightened remaining senses and military training make for an unrelenting force; his grunts, creaking from implied prolong lack of use, only add to the illusion of mythological creature in human form. His is an imposing physical performance; his actual dialogue is scarce in comparison to his co-stars. Yet he evokes terror just by sheer presence alone. It touches the primal fear of the boogeyman in a way most slasher antagonists in the modern era fail to achieve. There is also a call out to the mythical mastiff Cerberus, complete with a tongue-in-cheek shout out to a Stephen King classic.

If it were only a clever reimagining of mythological tropes, this film would be interesting, but not compelling. However, much like the Raimi directed horror film Drag Me To Hell (2009), Don’t Breathe’s characters are complicated yet relatable individuals. Like most mythological heroes, they are neither completely good nor evil. They are, arguably, good people who do bad things. Rocky’s life is the school of hard knocks, and she wants out. Alex’s love for Rocky is unrequited, but he cares for and will do anything for her. Even the oily, loathsome Money is not all bad. He wants a better life for himself and Rocky (even if he does refer to her as “my bitch”). It’s hard not to sympathize with any of the characters; including, to a much lesser degree, The Blind Man. Generally, once a villain or monster’s motivations are explained, the inherent evil and horror of that character diminishes. This is the rare case wherein the monster is sympathetic (and make no mistake, a monster he is) yet still retains the same level of horror. Alvarez subverts the protagonist/antagonist dichotomy because, depending on one’s point of view, the characters act as both. It’s more an atheistic, Darwinian treatise than a morality play.

The film has an 88 minute run time, yet manages to be excruciatingly suspenseful while maintaining a breezing pacing. The tight editing keeps the action going and ratchets the unease within the corridor-laden house; even the quiet moments are fraught with tension and anxiety. However, the film contains moments of possibly unintended humor. I say “possibly” as Raimi and Tapert are known for their penchant for subversive, black humor. But the laughs are more from cathartic release than from any cliché eye rolling. Nevertheless, the tension runs that high throughout the film. Roque Baños’ minimalist but foreboding score adds to the tableau by acoustically grating the nerves. The narrative as a whole is terrifying yet engaging, holding your interest (and seat) up until the controversial conclusion.

Don’t Breath is a breath of fresh air for the genre. For those fans of the genre, it entertains on that level. But, like any maze, the deeper one goes, the more complicated it becomes. As with any mythological sojourn, perceptions will change by journey’s end. It’s subversively compelling, but won’t allow you to breathe easily.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

WORTH A CALL: The "Ghostbusters" Reboot Is An Interesting But FlawedTake.

It’s difficult to begin this review without addressing the giant Stay-Puft-Marshmallow Man in the room, so I won’t even try. The new Ghostbusters was a contentious proposition even before a single frame was shot; a reboot boasting an all-new, completely female cast. Invectives were hurled, shade was thrown, declarations of youthful ruination abounded, and an a priori prejudice based solely on gender. Some of the feelings are understandable. In the course of 32 years, the original Ghostbusters, (starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, the late Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis), a poorly-reviewed film upon release, has almost achieved a quixotic level of beloved, almost mythic reverence in pop culture. “Quixotic” because when one scrutinizes the film, it is less a plot driven movie and more a string of SNL/SCTV skits held together by a narrative. The charm and, arguably put, power of the film primarily comes from the years-forged chemistry between the holy trinity of Murray, Ackroyd, and Ramis and, to be honest, they were either playing themselves or another permutation of characters they’ve played before, peppered with just enough nuance (if it can be called that) to avoid stereotype. Ramis’ “Egon” was just "Russell" from Stripes (1981) with a tighter sphincter. Ackroyd’s “Ray” was an exaggerated version of every other pretentious non-everyman he had played in the past, and Bill Murray…was Bill Murray. It was the (much of it improvised) interaction between the three (with great assist from Hudson and Weaver) that made the first film a classic, and its sequel just above tolerable.

Keep in mind that, again, it has been almost 30 years since the proverbial band got together. In that time, Ackroyd churned out scripts which director Ivan Reitman reportedly couldn’t get behind. Murray avoided reading them and continually passed. Ultimately and sadly, Ramis’ passing put a kibosh on any opportunity to revisit these characters one last time.

The above speaks to the main disadvantage of any Ghostbusters reboot that would've take place: It would not have the chemistry that really was the films’ selling point. But there was too much financial potential in this franchise for Sony and Columbia not to exploit.  Hence, its relaunch, this time with director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) at the helm (though Ivan Reitman, as well as Ackroyd, stayed on as producer) and the cast headed by Bridesmaids tag team of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, who play “Abby Yates” and “Erin Gilbert”, respectively; two estranged sisters-from-another-mister. When Erin’s tenure at a prestigious university is threatened by Abby’s re-releasing a paranormal book the duo co-authored, she goes to confront her frienemy but instead gets caught up in Abby and her “riot grrl”, fellow genius lab partner Jillian (a very manic Kate McKinnon) research into an increase of paranormal activity, which leads to them creating tech that can track and capture ghosts, and also realize that there’s a pattern to these sightings….

As with all reboots, it's an old story given a new coat of paint; a vibrant one at that, given the film’s visuals.  However, this serves to weaken the film and thus precludes it from standing on its own merits. Further, the film is extremely self-aware of not just the torch it’s carrying, but also the burden it's shouldering. It’s a rehash with a more drawn-out origin story. Unlike the original films which, as afore stated, relied on the years-honed chemistry between Murray, Ackroyd, and Ramis, it is absolutely necessary here. Unfortunately this means that the new leads, which include Leslie Jones as “Patty”, the “every person” Ghostbuster with a matchless knowledge of the city, have to go a long way to get a grasp of their characters and the struggle is, at times, noticeable; serving only to remind the viewers of the long shadow the first film casts.

The quixotic aspect of its film is that its respect and homage to the past is both its blessing and curse. It’s reverential to the source material (and its cast; especially in one blink-and-you-miss it moment that will bring a tear to the eye), to an almost slavish degree. While it shows respect, it also undermines its attempt at being its own, brand new entity. Also, it’s hyper aware of its controversy, as the dialogue is peppered with metatextual commentary about the fan uproar (one particular sublime scene is especially metatextual given the actor participating in it. Let’s just say a certain performer finally got his wish in much the same way Harrison Ford did, and leave that there). It is nevertheless a testament that the dialogue by screenwriter Katie Dippold (and Feig) is such that if one was not aware of the controversy leading up to the film, it wouldn’t be as distracting, if at all.

But that gender “controversy”(such as it is) is immaterial. These are not women who are Ghostbusters; they are Ghostbusters that just happen to be women. Their sex really isn’t a factor in the film (aside from maybe a joke or two about orifices). While it can be argued that this is a negative because presupposes that the characters could be interchanged all men or co-ed, it’s a positive because they’re treated as real people and individuals...which is a testament to the actors despite some of their struggles. The characters are presented and treated respectfully (as respected as Ghostbusters could be. They weren’t the apple of everyone’s eye in the original films either, regardless of sex).

That so much has been discussed above its easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a film to be analyzed and considered on its own merits. How does the reboot fare as its own entity? Unfortunately, for all its ambitions and good intentions, its a mixed bag. As a contemporary reboot, it’s darker and, in some respects, more disturbing. The current cinematic trend of disaster porn hasn't skipped this production. On the flip side, the film possess some heft and emotional weight. But, boy, at least the film looks good. The visual effects team must have raided all of Disney’s Haunted Mansions for the look. It’s a film grand in scope, but jerky in presentation. Not all the jokes hit, and the pacing issues echo those of 1989’s Ghostbusters II.  The stop-and-start nature narrative can be frustrating at times, but the climax of the film does manage to top that of the original film. By the same token, there’s so much going on and in such a scope that it threatens to overwhelm; a case of overcompensation and catering, perhaps, but damn if it doesn’t look engaging.

As to the performances, despite occasional hiccups, it seems that everyone is having a good time. McCarthy and Wiig deliver solid performances and effectively sell their emotional journey of trying to find reapproachment after years of estrangement. Leslie Jones has been the target of cyber-bullying of late because of this film, all of which meritless and unfounded, as she fully commits herself to her role and does so effectively and amusingly, her energy rivaled by her co-star McKinnon, who fully embraces her characters idiosyncratic iconoclasm. Andy Garcia appears as a very clueless image conscious mayor, who could be a metaphor for frankly any previous New York mayor of the past two decades. As the villain of the piece, Neil Casey is on note. His character is essentially a fade-to-the-background schlub, and the performance delivers, almost too well.

But the actor who steals the show right from under everyone is Chris Hemsworth as “Kevin”, the Ghostbusters’ gender-bent “dumb blonde” receptionist. Hemsworth, best known for superhero roles (which is nudge-nudge-winked-winked here), shows off his comedic chops to great effect to the extent that his performance dominates every scene he’s in. Even when a scene doesn’t work, he does. He’s clearly having the most fun he’s ever had in a role, even surpassing his extended cameo in the recent remake/reboot of National Lampoon’s Vacation. Yet he also manages to take this performance and use it to buoy, not overshadow, his costars.  

The score by Theodore Shapiro is effective, and incorporates Ray Parker, Jr.’s now-iconic theme into the orchestrations; something that the late great Elmer Bernstein hadn’t done. Which is (there’s that word again) quixotic: It stamps it as a Ghostbusters film when presented, but highlights how generic it is in its absence. Nevertheless, it does what a score should.

Ghostbusters does not ruin the franchise (or childhoods), but it doesn’t necessarily save it, either. It’s a noble effort in the sense that it had a lot to juggle and has varying degrees of success. It's ambitious but disjointed, and the laughs are farther in-between than one would like. The film is weighed down but dependent upon the mythology it celebrates. Time will tell whether or not this reboot of the franchise can make anything approximating in the impression that the original. Speaking strictly as a film critic, it’s worth seeing once on the big screen, but doesn’t offer much by way of repeated viewing. It’s an experiment that yields mixed results, and one that doesn’t narratively justify a sequel.  Speaking, however, as an individual, there is one aspect of the film it must be applauded for: It reinforces the notion that heroes are heroes, no matter what their race, creed, or (and especially) gender. That, above all else, is why Ghostbusters should be given the benefit of the doubt. 

Friday, July 8, 2016


Have you ever been stopped by an officer and told to your face you look like a terrorist?

I have.

Have you ever been told to get down on your knees and put your hands on your head simply because you “look suspicious”?

I have.

Both times were traffic stops. In both instances, I was simply going home. The first I was stopped ostensibly for blowing a stop sign (I hadn’t). The second was for going five or six miles over the posted speed limit (which I did). In both instances, I kept perfectly still and kept my hands on the wheel.  Each time I did not roll down the window until the officer was by my window, that even that I did slowly. Each time, my hands were always in the officers’ view. During the former, the photo on my license had been unchanged since I was 27 because I simply renewed my license online. Now, there’s a marked difference when you’re a shaved fresh-faced youth with a head full of hair, and a bald, middle-aged unshaven man whose features become weighed with age. Yet It’s one thing to say “are you sure this is you? It doesn’t look like you” and another to say “step out of the car, please. You look like a terrorist.”

In the second case, the officer took a look at my new (photo updated) license, looked at me again, then the license, then without explanation asked me to step out of the car, get on my knees, and put my hands on my head while he backed away to his vehicle with his free hand on his still-holstered piece.

As an aside…if the United States of America’s biggest selling point is that it’s one giant melting pot, I can say without irony that I am arguably representative of that concept. I’m mulatto. My racial/biological heritage runs a recent generational spectrum of Cuban, African, Asian (Chinese), and European (French/Spanish) (and that’s what I’m aware of). Hence I have always had an eclectic look; to the point that no one knew how to racially classify me. Hell, one my closest friends, a woman I have and always will I consider a “sister from another mister”, remarked to me once on social media that in thirty years of friendship, she still didn’t know how to classify me until after I had classified myself. All my life, I’ve lived with the reality that while I “belong” to many, due to dilution I was (and probably still am) accepted by none. Because of that difference, I’ve been told I look Samoan, Mongolian, and, yes, Middle Eastern; the latter having been replaced in the minds of some by another buzz word: “Terrorist”.

In the first case, the cop was clearly a rookie from the way he handled himself and the situation. His older partner, hearing him make the statement, admonished him with a disapproving look. As for me, I was more angry over the insulting presumption than I was over the unfairness of being unjustly pulled over. I got a ticket, and was left to go on my way. I didn’t think any more of it until the second instance, wherein; a disturbing implication hit: I may have been stopped due to traffic infractions, but my looks…my very being…may have made me a target. Never mind that in each instance I was non-belligerently compliant. Never mind that I was just driving home in both instances. “Minding my own business” may sound cliché, but that was exactly what I was doing.

I admit with some shame in the latter instance at experiencing shock and despair at being made to kneel. I neither argued nor fought but I was abjectly terrified. It was a dark night, pulled over in a dimly-lit neighborhood, houses darkened in the late hours, no witnesses in sight, my only company an officer whose intentions were unknown. I remember feeling a tear running down my cheek when I realized at that moment, with this current climate, I might have been taking my last few breaths. That I may never see my loved ones again and, quite possibly, they would never know what happened to me.  Que dramatico, you say? You live in that moment, knowing what's happened to others in similar circumstances, and see what goes through your head. The humiliation, confusion, and fear must have been etched in my features because, to his credit, the officer came to the conclusion that I was anything but a threat; he let me go with a warning. I don't remember going home. I just remember sitting in the car for almost a half hour, shaking with a tumult of emotions too difficult to express to trust myself to drive just six more blocks to relative safety.

This week closes with the deaths of two African-American and a slew of police officers who were doing their duty, which come on the heels of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and so many others that have gone unreported in the general media. They hit me viscerally given my experiences, and ruminating on same make me see that they are filled with contradictory messages: I was initially judged based on my appearance. I was neither arrested nor killed for same.

Racism is ugly, demeaning, and soul crushing. The fear being espoused by minorities is horrifically real. There are bad officers out there who are ruled by preconceived notions and prejudices. However, there are just as many out there who are decent and rational (as opposed to rationalizing after the fact) and doing the job. But an “us versus them” mentality is pervading the public consciousness. When the protectors are seen as the hunters, the hunted feel the need to fight back; the violence becomes cyclical. This past week may be just of taste of what’s coming. But it doesn’t have to be this way. My above-experiences tell me so.

I wish I had answers. I don’t. I wish I could spout some bon mot that could tie this all in a nice conclusive bow. I can’t. I fear it will get worse before it gets any better. Maybe it’s naïve and Pollyannaish to believe it can get better. But it is possible.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


I was a special guest on "Canonfire With Adrian Maiquez" to discuss DC Comics and its live action output.  You can find the podcast here:

A video addendum was also added as the interview went into overtime.  You can find it here:


Monday, May 9, 2016


“You move.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 8, 2016

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

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

Told you it was in your face.

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

…what’s that?

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

This is the quiet part

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

Um, skip the Dbox for this moment.

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

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

Cue Adele's "Hello"

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

Lex who?

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

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