Monday, June 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 27, 2018

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

Ten years.

Nineteen films.

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

A road that has led to Avengers: Infinity War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

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

As I type this, I think of Ted Knight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

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

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

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

That weapon is Chris Hemsworth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>Hammer drop<

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

FOREIGN BODY: "The Foreigner" Is A Taut Thriller Buoyed By Strong Performances.

As you may or may not be aware, Jackie Chan was awarded the honorary Oscar in 2016 for his 56-year-long body of work (beginning at age six!) and spanning over 200 films; an achievement arguably long overdue. However, the honorary Oscar has historically carried the stigma of the recipient’s career either winding down or being on it’s last legs (as Peter O'Toole once famously remarked on his refusal to receive one). Regardless, he was all gratitude for having received. Yet, despite that honor, the international one-man entertainment industry continues his quest to earn another one on the strength of his acting chops if "The Foreigner" is any indication. The film, produced by (along with a myriad of others) and starring Chan (based on the book "The Chinaman" by Stephen Leather, adapted for the screen by David Marconi), and directed by Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye, Casino Royale) is not your standard Chan vehicle. Believe me when I say this is a good thing.

The film centers on Ngoc Minh Quan (Chan), a restaurateur in London. When his daughter Fan (Katie Leung, the Harry Potter films) is slain in a terrorist attack attributed to a group called "The Authentic IRA", a grief-stricken Quan goes looking for answers. When his inquiries are rebuffed and himself dismissed as an old, unassuming Asian man, he proves to be anything but as he embarks on a quest for answers on his own; going so far as to challenge Irish deputy minister, and former IRA leader, Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, Goldeneye, The Tailor of Panama) for the truth.

Director Campbell emerges from a six year sabbatical (after the poorly-received Green Lantern) to direct this taut thriller and evincing a true return to form. His pacing strikes a healthy balance between action and suspense, understanding that a mastery of the latter heightens the former. Unlike other films in his filmography, however, there is little in the sense of fun here. Campbell goes for a stark, dismal tone that befits the subject matter, which is unfortunately all too topically relevant. Campbell and cinematographer David Tattersall establish this at the outset visually, presenting the city of London and the vistas of Ireland through an overcast, bluish shroud at times reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Payback (though shot in beautiful panorama at times, quixotically highlighting the beauteous Irish landscape despite its dreary climate). The sun doesn’t shine in this world; an apt metaphor for the emotional state of not only its central character , but also to the secondary players in varying degrees. Cliff Martinez’ score also adds to the oppressive, almost funereal cinematic tableau without drowning in it.

But Campbell’s major achievement here is eking out remarkable performances from his two leads. Most Americans remember the cherubic, lithely athletic, self-deprecating Chan from films like Rumble In The Bronx, Supercop, or the Rush Hour series (or Cannonball Run, if you want to go that far). In this film, Chan's transformation is nothing short of astounding; his cherubic features worn and body weighted with age and heart-rending grief. There is nothing sprightly or comedic in this performance, which makes it all the more pronounced and startling. Chan's always been a performer, but rarely do American audiences see him as an actor. It's a jarring yet remarkable transformation that adds extra gravitas to the movie, but it’s an effect not limited to his physical appearance. Chan's fight scenes have always been extolled for their balletic skill as much as for their comedic bent. Here the fight choreography is among the most gritty (though still somewhat over the top) ever presented in his filmography even if the proof of his newfound use of stuntmen is unfortunately present. While still super-human in execution, there's a slower aspect to it, befitting a character in that stage of life. While Chan has always been a self-deprecating cinematic presence, for the first time he evinces a different type of vulnerability that really sells this role.

Yet, despite Chan's name being above the credits, the bulk of the weight is equally carried on Pierce Brosnan's shoulders. Reunited with the director who helped introduce him to the world as the fifth James Bond, Brosnan arguably gives the performance of his career. His Hennessy is a confluence of contrasts, leaving the viewer unsure regarding their sympathies. Yet he also gives a measured performance, by turns subtle and explosive. Ironically, his native Irish brogue sounds exaggeratedly affected at times, but it adds to his character's charismatic nature. Over the years, Brosnan has grown as an actor, and that growth seems to culminate here. Yet both actors are at their best when paired off with each other, the one feeding and bringing out the best in the other. While the other actors acquit themselves, particularly Orla Brady (Into The Badlands), Michael McEllathon (Game of Thrones), Charlie Murphy (Philomena), and Dermot Crowley (Return of the Jedi), Chan and Brosnan are the real performances to watch, both independently and together.

The Foreigner is a risky film that is better than it has a right to be. It’s tight, suspenseful and, despite its depressing tone, satisfying in all sense of the word. The true hallmarks are the powerful performances from its two leads. Brosnan gives the performance of a career, while Chan’s own is nothing short of revelatory. While the idea of Chan as dramatic lead may be a foreign one, this film will change that. Get out your spy glasses...The Foreigner is one to watch.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

WAR WELL FOUGHT: "War for the Planet of the Apes" Is A Powerful Conclusion To The Trilogy

The Planet of the Apes franchise is one of Hollywood’s longest and most enduring film properties. Yet, at one time or another it also became one of the most dismissive; especially after Tim Burton’s poorly received Apes remake, which almost served as proof that there was no life left in the concept. It was a pleasant surprise that Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) was not only well constructed, but acclaimed both critically and popularly. A change in director was perhaps one of many factors that made its follow up, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) better than the original, building a narrative crescendo that peaks to a spectacular climax in War for the Planet of the Apes

In this third outing, taking place two years after the events of Dawn, Ceasar (Andy Sirkis) still leads his band of apes, ever vigilant against humanity’s desire for their extinction. He’s content to keep his people hidden within the confines of their jungle environment, until the military zealot Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) strikes him a devastating blow. With the accepted-reluctantly aid provided by Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) which leads Caesar on a quest to end McCullough and this war once and for all.

One of the brilliant aspects of this series is the creation of an entire mythology through the telling of a singular, personal narrative; specifically, through the life journey of Caesar (Andy Sirkis) from his humble beginnings through his personal conflicts. When taken as a whole, his cinematic journey parallels that of the biblical figure Moses, cast out and taken in by a different people, raised as one of them, only to be cruelly reminded that he is radically different, and finds himself leading his people out of captivity and slavery, searching for a promised land to call their own. It’s this (not so) subtle parallelism that gives the proceedings a greater dramatic weight than even the original 1970s films ever contained (when they were simply dismissed as atomic age allegory). But these parallels aren’t the only things that elevate this film series. Military and (arguably) jingoistic/religious zealotry, coupled with the desire to exterminate an entire race for the sins of a few are sadly relevant today. This makes for a nagging uncomfortable feeling, since the film’s perspective skews decidedly in favor of the apes, whose oppressive victimization is escalated here. Unlike the previous two films, the humans here, epitomized in Harrelson’s surprising and effective turn as the unhinged McCullough, are almost completely unsympathetic. While there is an argument to be made for McCullough’s point of view, it is vaguely defensible at best. The film presents two points of view, and the tragedy that exists and persists when intransigent viewpoints hold. It argues that intransigency lays the foundation to the Apocalypse, and it is a metatextually resonant message.

While it’s difficult to determine with certainty whether there is an intentional political agenda behind this film, there is no argument that this is not only the best film in the series, but a powerful, engaging film in its own right. Matt Reeves, returning as director for the second time, proves his mastery at mood. The action sequences, while impressive, take a back seat to moments. The pacing is that of a thriller (psychological or horror, take your pick), replete silent, maddening tension, ready to explode at a moment’s notice, leaving the viewer anticipating and dreading when it comes, if ever. Michael Giacchino’s score, much like Bernard Hermann, uses his orchestrations to ratchet the moments, and it’s one of the few times his scoring comprises of recognizable, distinct motifs. They stand out on their own and stay with you even as they build the mood of their specific themes. Never would one have thought that an Apes movie would be stylistically considered Hitchockian. Stranger things have happened.

But for all of its possible lofty intentions, the strength of this film likes in its characterization. Frankly, these films in general, and this one in particular, would be nothing without Andy Serkis. His evolution of the Caesar character is this series’ hallmark, giving depth and poignancy to what could have been dismissed as a CGI gimmick. Here, his Ceasar is tired and world weary; yet also resolutely vengeful as he ventures away from his flock to exact personal retribution. His journey is tumultuously emotional even as it is physical, yet filed with dignity and resoluteness. It’s a powerful performance by Serkis. Supporting players Konoval, Notary, and Adamthwaite bolster Serkis’ performance while keeping their own characters dramatically arresting in and of themselves. Newcomer Amiah Miller is precocious as the mute girl the quartet encounter in their journey, and special mention goes to Steve Zahn as “Bad Ape”, a chimp whose ability to speak rivals Caesar’s own proficiency and provides MUCH needed comic relief to this film. But no matter how powerful the performances are, they would have been disserviced if the special effects weren’t top notch. The CGI has advanced to the point that the apes are as natural as anything seen on screen, melding seamlessly with not only their surroundings, but the human playing actors as well. The viewer has no choice but to buy into it.

War of the Planet of the Apes serves as a fitting end to a trilogy, as well as a foundation for future films. It is a powerful and arguably far-too-resonant piece of artistic filmmaking, allegorical not only to the myths of the past but to the possible dangers of the future. What could have once been dismissed as campy escapist absurdism has instead transformed into Shakespearian apologue; a cautionary tale which shines a subversively disturbing, unapologetic light upon humanity, quixotically doing so entertainingly. It's a film to go ape for.