Wednesday, December 30, 2015

“THE HATEFUL EIGHT” Is Quentin Tarantino At His Best...and Worst.

It’s safe to say that Quentin Tarantino is one of, if not the, most successfully controversial filmmaker in the past twenty years or so.  With (now) eight films under his belt, he has yet to produce an uninteresting or unprofitable film. His use of dialogue and mood is practically textbook. His movies have started some careers and famously revitalized others (John Travolta, Pam Grier, and Bruce Willis come to mind). He has managed to take a pastiche of the retro and manage to reassemble the pieces to seem something innovatingly fresh, even as their execution straddles the fine line between cinematic brilliance and sadistic exploitation. Some call him an auteur; others, a hack. Yet one thing remains certain: A new Quentin Tarantino release merits attention. Tarantino’s latest, The Hateful Eight, not only merits it, but boldly demands it.  Eight is Tarantino on steroids. All his cinematic bag of tricks is on display in exaggerated bas relief for better or worse. It is a melding of cinematic styles that both seductively entices as it viscerally repulses. It is his most passionate yet disturbing piece of cinematic art to date. Make no, it is.

While the story is told in six chapters, its development is more appropriate to a three-act play. Set in the blizzard-ravaged mountains of Wyoming approximately a decade after the Civil War, ex-war hero turned bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) hitches a ride on a stagecoach run by O.B. Jackson (James Parks) with fellow bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is transporting his live bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang in the town of Red Rock. They also come to pick up a man by the name of Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who not only may or may not be the Sheriff of Red Rock, but also harbors some deep seated prejudice against black folk. When the blizzard makes further progress impossible, they seek refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery, which is occupied by the likes of Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); General Sandy Smithers (an ornery Bruce Dern); Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the ostensible hangman of Red Rock; and a Mexican by the name of Bob (Demian Bichir), who claims to be running the place in Minnie’s absence. As the storm grows harder, tensions run higher. Not everyone is who or what they seem, and it becomes clear as time passes that not everyone, if anyone, will get out alive.

One of Tarantino’s hallmarks is taking unsavory characters and making them, if not sympathetic, then at least relatable…infusing them with something approximating the redemptive. Nothing of the sort can be found in this film, the western equivalent of Jean-Paul Sarte’s No Exit and Dante Alighierif’s Inferno by way of an Agatha Christie whodunit.  The setting is the key, as the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the haberdashery. One of Tarantino’s greatest strengths as a storyteller has been his ability to create tension in even the most innocuous of circumstances.  Here, the tension is as taut as piano wire. Combined with the judicious use of noise and minimal use of soundtrack, coupled with the crisp visuals brought on by the 70 mm ultra Panavision process, the film engenders a stifling, vertiginous sense of claustrophobia ratcheted to an uncomfortable degree.

The main theme in this film is “subversion”, which takes its form in both characterization and expectation. The film plays with audience assumption, then turns same on its head in entertainingly sadistic fashion. Don’t expect to root for anyone. There are no true protagonists or antagonists; they’re all interchangeable within their respective interpersonal dynamics. Each character is, to varying degrees, as sympathetic as they are repulsive. More to the point, while not exactly a divine comedy, Tarantino’s wickedly subversive sense of macabre humor is more “in your face” than ever here. It’s bloody and gory, but the violence is incongruently stylized yet minimalist, and filled with gallows humor. The sadism comes primarily from the characters’ motivations. They revel in the horror they inflict. They’re horrid, loathsome, yet completely fascinating.

For the first time in any Tarantino production, Samuel L. Jackson receives top billing honors, and it’s much deserved just for his work in this film alone (if not for his combined body of work in Tarantino’s back catalogue) for the hypnotic portrayal of his character epitomizes the film’s subversive nature; but his is not the only sublime performance.  Kurt Russell seemingly revels in his portrayal of the “The Hangman” and his macabrely comedic interactions with Leigh as the even more unsavory and uncouth Domergue. Russell and Leigh’s chemistry is one of the film’s highlights as they play off each other antagonistically but in a weird, old married, spousal abuse couple kind of way (sharing a film for the first time since 1991's Backdraft). Tim Roth tries his best to channel Christophe Waltz in a part that, based on the script and direction, was most likely written with the latter actor in mind; however, Roth is gamely entertaining even as he effects what is essentially a Waltz impersonation (given that The Hateful Eight takes place in the same universe and time period as Django Unchained (2012), it’s just as well Waltz wasn’t or couldn’t be cast). As for the rest, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins, Michael Madsen, Lee Horsley, Channing Tatum(!)…all the actors deftly realize their characters, even though Demian Bichir’s “Bob” borders on caricature (but then, given the movie genre Eight emulates, the representation is sadly appropriate). The most surprising performance next to Jackson’s belongs to Leigh. A case can be made that this film is extremely misogynistic (the disposition of the supporting female characters, played by actresses Dana Gourrier, Zoe Bell, and Belinda Owino, would bolster that argument); however, even here Tarantino pulls a bait-and-switch which Leigh’s sublime performance effectively nails. Even when just sitting in the background, you feel her presence. She’s a ticking time bomb, and when the explosion comes, it is chillingly fierce.  She was once considered one of the promising new actors of the late '80s/early '90s, Her performance proves that potential has not been diminished by time.

All the characters are compelling on their own merits, but none of which are anyone you’d wish to share a beer with.  But perhaps the most important player of the film never appears on screen. In a feat not even Clint Eastwood could perform, Tarantino convinced Ennio Morricone to score an(almost) original score for a western for the first time in 40-plus years (and the first original score for a Tarantino film ever). Morricone, however, himself thwarts expectation by presenting a score unlike any he had ever produced for the spaghetti westerns which made his fortune, while at the same time seamlessly fitting the film. Instead of majestic, sweeping epic orchestrations, the film’s main theme, which dominates the score, is low-key, foreboding, sinuously suspenseful, tensely nihilistic, and macabrely humorous all at once. For all of his talents, the mood Tarantino establishes would be diminished without Morricone’s contributions. 

The Hateful Eight is a polarizing film. It is tantalizingly fascinating even as it’s abhorrent to witness. It's idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. The characters, to varying degrees are just, plain nasty; but through Tarantino’s lens, gleefully so.  It’s evil. It’s so good, it’s evil. It leaves you feeling dirty but not wanting to wash it off. It’s practically three hours long, but leaves you begging for more.  Tarantino attempts much in terms of style, themes, and presentation, and in varying degrees succeeds in each one.  Even more than Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2, this is Tarantion’s most epic film to date.  It ensnares you in its presentation, and stays with you long after the end credits roll. This film encompasses everything Tarantino represents as a filmmaker. So, if you love Tarantino, you’ll love this film. If you hate Tarantino, you’ll really hate this film. There is no in-between.  It leaves such a visceral impact in the way that powerful art in any medium is supposed to engender. In all honesty, there’s much to ruminate over the film that cannot be extrapolated in a mere movie review.  It's either his best film or his worst depending on your sensibilities. Suffice it to say, for a film to do all of that, it merits…demands…viewing. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015


Are you afraid?

I am.

I don't mind admitting it; after all, we’re being sold fear.

Terrorists ply in it.

Politicians and pundits sell it.

Media, digital and social, subsists on it…thrives on it.

In our modern world of mass-communication, coverage of terror-inducing events 24/7 is inescapable.

9/11, France, Russia, San Bernandino, Sandy Hook; “355” is the current magic number…gun control, guns out of control…yet according to myth the first murder was committed with a rock, which is far more plentiful than guns…

My religion’s better than your religion, my religion’s better than yooouuuurrrrrsssss….

Hurricanes, tsunamis, irradiated fish…

Prayers…words falling upon deafened ears….

Children kill parents and hold house parties while the corpses decompose in the upstairs bedroom.

Spouses kill each other over frivolous domestic disputes, and post it on social media for the world to see.

Shoppers send people to the hospital over a bargain TV.

A television actress brutalized by a homeless man for no discernable reason other than frenzied impulse.

My mother and her husband assaulted at gunpoint, the latter pistol-whipped, at a local pharmacy a couple of blocks from their home….

“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!”*

Damn right, I’m afraid.

The world is a frightening, dangerous place on its own. Always has been and, despite our more lofty ideations, it would be jejunely Pollyannaish to believe otherwise. Humanity’s contributions are the overabundance at an all-you-can-eat-buffet. We were never promised a rose garden. We can only till the soil we're given.

It’s a dangerous business…going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”**

I’m afraid and I live with that fear…but I refuse to live in fear. We must continue to live life as we choose to while respecting others’ right to live theirs, for this is a freedom that belongs to us all, and no fundamentalist of any persuasion has the right to take that away. This assertion has nothing to do with “letting terrorists win” rhetoric, but everything to do with the fact that we’re dying the moment we’re born; that at any second, through an outside agency having nothing to do with us or our circumstances, we’re here one moment and gone the next. Life is a finite commodity, and every moment spent cowering is a moment devoid of fulfilled expression.

"Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living."***

Be vigilant. Be protective. Be proactive. Know there are some things outside of your control, but you have the option to affect what you can.

Yes, I am afraid.

But as we breathe, we still live.

Make sure you do.

*           “Malone” (Sean Connery); The Untouchables (1987).
**         The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkein (1954).
***        Mother Jones.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


More often than not, the Bond title sequence theme songs hint at the overall tone of the films they accompany. Who can forget the Shirley Bassey, who belted out Goldfinger (1964) with a divaesque brassiness that was evocative of both the film and the titular villain, or her serenely luscious Moonraker (1979), which matched that film’s more laid back tone? Imagine Thunderball (1965) without Tom Jones’ dynamic tones whose vocal power matched the visuals of the first ever extended underwater fight sequence ever committed to film? Who can forget Tina Turner’s sultry-yet-attitude-filled rendition of Goldeneye (1995), announcing to the world that Bond was back with a vengeance? Even as recent an offering as Skyfall (2012) follows this trend: A tour-de-force performance by Adele which both paid homage to the Bassey-stylings of yesteryear and served as promise that the sins of the previous entry Quantum of Solace (2008) would soon be washed away.

Yet, after an over-the-top, visually fatiguing pre-title sequence, Sam Smith’s “The Writing On The Wall” informs us of what to expect from the rest Sam Mendes’ Spectre:  A whole lot of dull. That’s not exactly something you would hear being said about a James Bond film; especially not one as highly anticipated as a film titled "Spectre". After all, the evil organization, a thorn in Bond’s side since the first official Bond film (1962’s Dr. No), has been off limits to the producers for 44 years (34 if you count an unofficial “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” pre-title sequence in either 1981’s For Your Eyes Only or the 1983 unofficial Bond feature Never Say Never Again). But that is exactly what you get here.

Following up on a message from beyond the grave, Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) undertakes an unsanctioned mission in Mexico; the consequences of which cause not only his being benched from active duty, but embarks him on a trail (with the help of Miss Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), fish-out-of-water “Q” (Ben Whishaw), a crusty, reluctant “M” (Ralph Finnes), and Dr. Madelene Swann (Léa Seydoux), the daughter of an old enemy) that leads Bond to a secret organization known as Spectre, whose machinations stretch back further than Bond ever realized…and hits Bond more personally than he would care to admit. Meanwhile, MI6 is experiencing it’s own form of benching as an operative code-named “C” (Andrew Scott) works to consolidate the world’s intelligence agencies into one global surveillance network, effectively rendering MI6, and the “00” section, obsolete.

Spectre’s screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth make good use the current cultural privacy zeitgeist as story fodder. While Skyfall leitmotif was about Bond’s obsolescence as an aging individual, Spectre ups the ante by focusing on MI6’s obsolescence as an outmoded relic in a world where 24 hour digital surveillance is now a sad reality; “Big Brother is watching you”, and Spectre succeeds in capturing the moody atmosphere that awareness would engender. Spectre is waiting in the shadows; too bad it doesn’t have teeth.

It’s hard to believe that both Skyfall and Spectre were directed by the same person. Whereas Sam Mendes’ Skyfall was tightly suspenseful, his Spectre is meanderingly listless. The action sequences, while craftily put together and are a visual delight, lack a visceral punch. Unfortunately, Thomas Newman’s score doesn’t help. While pleasing to the ear, his orchestrations don’t add the emotional impact the sequences demand; in fact, it’s arguable that they call attention to how disjointed they are.

While the film does drag, it does manage to build a credible plot filled with intrigue and distrust; at least, two thirds of the way through it.  However, by the time the film hits the third act, it’s less a cohesive story and more of a series of “what the f***” moments (and not in a good way). Character motivations and logic are practically thrown out the window in attempts at pseudo-emotional payoffs that either never come or, when they do, feel contrived and unearned. Of course, we’re talking about the Bond series of films where reality has always been either in flux or a non-issue. But, given that the credo of the Craig era has been a grittier, more realistic Bond, these issues become even more egregious in context.

Daniel Craig is a very interesting actor, given the incongruous nature of his fourth outing as the super-spy; it amazes how he can give a nuanced performance while seemingly bored with it all. His is a unique position in the Bond pantheon of actors because, unlike the previous Bonds who “reset” with each of their respective films, Craig’s films are thematically and chronologically connected, allowing him to build an actual, relatable flesh-and-blood character over time (a decade next year). But there are moments in his performance where it seems Craig’s tired of the journey; almost treading into by-the-numbers territory. Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas), in his second appearance as the quartermaster “Q”, is engaging as a hipster tech geek caught in an out-of-his-depth situation. While Naomi Harris’ Moneypenny is as capable and independent as she was in the previous film, her lighthearted banter with Bond, which served to humanize Bond further in the last film, is sorely missed here.

One of the bright spots performance-wise is the sparing-yet-effective use of Dave Bautista as “Mr. Hines”. Like “Oddjob” and “Jaws” before him, Hines is a big, laconic henchman assassin. While the role itself is underwritten, Bautista makes it memorable by the sheer force of his personality. He and Craig present one of the best Bond close-quarter fight scenes in the history of the series, right up there with From Russia With Love (1963) and Goldeneye. Much was made in the media of casting of Monica Bellucci as the “oldest Bond girl”; would that her role matched the hype. It is a wasteful disservice to cast the beautiful and soulful actress in what amounts to an extended expository cameo. By contrast, as Dr. Swann, Seydoux pops on screen, going toe-to-toe with Craig's Bond in terms of obstinate personality. Her chemistry with Craig is palpable, each bringing out the best acting out of the other. She presents one of the rare Bond girls who one could conceive Bond actually falling in love with (unlike, say, Dame Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) - yes, I went there) and effectively gives one of the most nuanced but powerful emotional beats James Bond has ever experienced on film.

The biggest, and most disappointing, role belongs to Christopher Waltz (Inglorious Basterds; Django Unchained). As the villain of the piece and given the film’s title, it should come as no surprise who his character really is. Unfortunately, that association comes with an expectation that is realized neither in concept nor performance; especially with the revamped personal connection between his character’s and Bond’s. There’s never a sense that a shared history between the two exists. The quiet menace Waltz brought to his role of “Hans Landa” Inglorious Basterds is completely absent here and minimizes the entire impact of both the character and the film as a whole.

Visually, the film is stunning to look at. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema brings a sumptuous aesthetic with expansive vistas and long shots rivaling those of the Disney Epcot Soarin’ ride that imply a sense of the epic that this film should have had. The world in Spectre is at turns exotically beautiful and darkly foreboding. In many respects, it’s what a Bond film should look, if not feel, like.

With a two hour, twenty-eight minute runtime, Spectre is the longest Bond film to date.  Unfortunately, much of that run time is devoted to long expository sequences that exist for the sake of hubris (Yes, I'm aware there are certain quarters who don’t mind seeing Daniel Craig performing a gratuitous sexy shimmy up a flight of stairs for an extended period of time…). Here, less would have been more. Instead of working to engage the audience, the excess detracts from the spectacle, leaving the viewer to wonder how much longer it will go on before they can get on with the actual story. With some trimming and tighter editing, this film could have been engagingly pulse-pounding instead of being quite the opposite. The film’s biggest enemy is self-indulgence.

In all, Spectre is a mixed bag. It establishes a pattern much like the old original cast series of Star Trek films (odd numbered films mediocre, even numbered good) to the Craig era. In this case, it’s only slightly better than Quantum of Solace, but way below par when compared to Casino Royale (2006) or Skyfall. As a film on its own merits, it’s seriously uneven to a distracting degree. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it isn’t, it’s all the more disappointing.  It’s definitely worth viewing on the big screen if your concerns are merely visual. In terms of story and entertainment, however, waiting for cable would be your best option. As usual, the end credits promise that “James Bond Will Return.”

Let’s hope he does so in a better vehicle.

Friday, October 23, 2015

TRULY, TRULY EGREGIOUS: "Jem and The Holograms" A Missed Opportunity [MINOR SPOILERS]

“Every generation needs a voice.”

The above tagline for Jem and The Holograms (2015) carries its own bit of irony given that its based on a cartoon that catered to a previous generation. Given the successes of the Transformers and (relatively speaking) GI Joe films, it comes as no surprise that Hasbro dipped into its “toy-to-toon” back log for yet another live-action adaptation. Despite the fact that the show only ran for three years, Jem the cartoon developed a beloved cult status that has lasted decades, gaining new generations of fans. So, in effect, more than one generation has been listening and once they tune in to this film, they would find that voice somewhat discordant.

By now, it is a truism that should be held as self-evident that Hollywood productions of beloved comics and cartoons will never be 100% faithful to the source material. The producers will reinvent the wheel to make it “relevant” and to maximize its potential to reach the broadest audience possible. Ofttimes, the elements that make such properties unique and treasured are cast aside in the name of “realism” and “relatability”, until it’s so stripped of its core identity that it’s barely recognizable. Jem walks that fine line. It keeps enough of the core elements intact, but reinvents them in such a way that its more fantastical elements are excised in the name of reality.

In other words, purists won’t like it one bit.

In the cartoon, Jerrica Benton was CEO of Starlight Music by day, and rock superstar Jem by night. Jerrica was the CEO of Starlight Music as well as the owner of an AI computer named “Synergy”, whose holographic abilities Jem could utilize through the use of her earrings. In the film, which is presented in flashback documentary style, Jerrica has been re imagined as a reluctant teenager (played by Aubrey Peeples) who, along with her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott), have been adopted by their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald), who is already foster mother to two other girls: Aja (Haley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). Jerrica possesses a beautiful singing voice but is reluctant to share it with the world. When Aunt Bailey is threatened with foreclosure, and after much encouragement from her sisters, she records herself singing a ballad she wrote herself but then decides to have it erased. Instead, it gets uploaded onto YouTube and promptly goes viral, catching the attention record producing mogul Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis in a gender-bending role, as the source character is male), who wants to sign Jem as a solo artist. In the midst of this whirlwind, Justin Bieber-esque rise to stardom, an old robotics experiment of her late father’s comes to life (this film’s version of Synergy, re-imagined as a cute little robot who already suffers the unfortunate happenstance of being overshadowed by BB-8 from a certain forthcoming film), causing Jerrica and her sisters to embark on a scavenger hunt from beyond the grave.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this film, that’s because there is. Unfortunately, director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Ryan Landels don’t justify much of that action, especially in terms of the scavenger hunt “b” plot; the story propels the characters into certain undertakings sans explanation (satisfactory or otherwise) as to why.  Also, there are many convenient deux ex machinas to be found (and some by way of  Synergy) that to explain them any further would go into big spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that many a scalp will hurt from all the head scratching the story engenders. Speaking of story, the film’s pacing is uneven. It begins interestingly, then meanders through the second and third acts until everything is rushed to a conclusion which, quite frankly, has no teeth. There’s never any real sense of urgent danger in any of the conflicts in the film and when they’re resolved, they’re done so in an almost pat fashion.

Most distracting of all is the product placement. Every frame seems to be littered with some corporate logo, whether product or web based. True, this is the same saturation that can be found in everyday life, but art doesn’t have to imitate life to this degree.

With all these issues, it would be easy to dismiss Jem outright…but for all its faults, it has its strengths, too; the most important of which being the actors. The actors who play the Hologram quartet are naturally believable in their roles. Peeples’ Jem/Jerrica is no supermodel stunner from the cartoon, but instead a beguiling teen with a sense of responsibility and self-deprecation, who’s singing voice delights and enchants. Scott’s Kimber’s earnestness is so palpable, one can’t help but want her as their own sister. The most fun and compelling sister is Kiyoko’s Aja, who is not as demure as her cartoon counterpart. Perrineau’s Shana is the blander sister if only by comparison, but she too has her moments. On the flip side, as of this writing it’s really difficult to make heads or tales of Lewis’ performance. Perhaps her take of the Raymond character is based off of true-to-life producers she’s met in her career, but at times her quirks can be a bit too over-the-top distracting that it jolts one out of the story. Her villainy is telegraphed even before she appears on screen, but her character is never a true threat; annoying, maybe, but not really serving as the effective foil a heroine requires.

The film also does a good job of balancing the retro with the modern, visually representing 80’s kitsch in a way that feels at home in today’s pop culture zeitgeist. That blending of then and now is personified by Jem/Jerrica herself in a solo number where its difficult to tell where Jem ends and ady Gaga begins.

The film’s other saving grace is its positive message. Jem and The Holograms is refreshingly cynicism free (at least, within the story itself). No “wink wink” snark to be found here. It’s overriding theme is acceptance of the uniqueness of the self and, if one pays close attention, the true target audience is anyone who is afraid to let their true selves shine; anyone who has ever felt like a (dare I say it…dare…dare) misfit.  It is not only evident with the testimonials of Jem’s adoring fans, but in a clever technique that pivotal moments are intermittently cut with footage of free-styling musicians and artists whose beats matches the scene’s emotional beats . The feminist-anthem songs are foot tappingly energetic, and the actors glee in performing the musical numbers is admittedly infectious.

The performances and browbeating message makes the film somewhat likable, if not enjoyable. Unfortunately, the film’s minor positives do not outweigh its negatives. Honestly, these characters could have been substituted with those from “Josie and The Pussycats” and still have told the same tale (Maybe they did; I never did see the Rachael Leigh Cook-starring 2001 film). So much of what made the cartoon unique is stripped away, making it that much more generic. With some imagination, this film could have been “truly, truly outrageous”.  Instead, it is truly, truly egregious.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

THE LITTLE HERO THAT COULD: "Ant-Man" Is An Atypical But EnjoyableMarvel Film [MINOR SPOILERS]

Anyone who’s ever watched any amount of television knows of the staple that is the “Really Big Episode(s)”. You know what I’m talking about: The big, multi-part story epic that takes at least two (maybe three) episodes to tell; a game changer where the stakes for the characters are so high that it leaves the protagonists, and the audience, exhausted at the conclusion. What usually follows is a quieter episode, sometimes a “day-in-the-life” scenario; an episode where both protagonist and viewer can take a breather and re-settle into the status quo before the next “event” hits; in other words, a small episode.

If we’re to treat the cinematic output from Marvel Studios as part of one grandiose narrative, then Ant-Man is that small episode. It serves as an appropriate coda to Marvel’s “Phase II” of films, Avengers: Age of Ultron having served as its bombastic climax. It’s everything that A:AUO, or any of the previous Marvel films, isn’t…and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Ant-Man is a super-hero/Mission: Impossible-esque heist film hybrid which follows breaking-and-entering artist Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who, upon release from doing time for a major, attention-calling heist, resolves to go legit; however, his attempts at legitimacy are thwarted by his larcenous past. His troubles are compounded by his forced estrangement from his daughter by his ex-wife Maggie’s (Judy Greer) new fiancé, an overbearing cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). Unbeknownst to Lang, his criminal exploits have caught the interest of one Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. associate who enlists him to commit the clichéd “one more job” with the aid of a miniaturization suit to reclaim Pym’s technology, that was appropriated by Cross Industries CEO and Pym’s one-time protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Reluctantly aiding Lang in this endeavor is Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is Cross’ corporate right-hand and is not only estranged from her father, but harbors an intense resentment towards Lang as well.

In terms of scope, again, Ant-Man is, pun intended, small. Whereas the previous films (and their respective protagonists) in Marvel Studio’s catalogue are larger than life, Ant-Man, the film and character, is more down-to-earth, it’s tone and execution somewhere between lofty super-hero demagoguery and the grim, street-level aesthetic as seen on the Netflix series Daredevil. Despite it’s relatively high stakes, Ant-Man feels like a quiet, indie film (well, as quiet as a story replete with super-heroes and villains, tech, and explosions will allow). If the feeling of the film is to be described in one word, it would be “intimate”.  It feels intimate. It’s perhaps one of the most intimate super-hero films ever filmed. More than any previous Marvel film, it’s relationships that take front and center. It’s also thematically rich. Both Lang and Pym’s characters run parallel courses: flawed characters whose pasts have a stranglehold on their present, estranged from their daughters and, to varying degrees, vilified by authority. The film asks whether redemption can be had when a person’s life is so checkered. Also poignant is the theme of generational hand-over, wherein the choice of whom to pass a figurative torch can have consequences for not only those to whom the torch is given, but to those who are passed over.

In any other film, such thematic explorations would unfold heavy-handedly; however, here is where director Peyton Reed veers from the Christopher Nolan-esque path and keeps the tone comically and approachably light. He blends the right amount of pithy and pathos, keeping one from overshadowing the other. This film was reportedly a troubled production, with original director Edgar Wright (who shares screenplay credit along with Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and star Rudd) having left over “creative differences” and various screenplay revisions. You would never know such took place from the finished product, as the film holds your attention even in the quietest of moments.

Paul Rudd’s everyman turned superman is extremely grounded, washboard abs notwithstanding. Scott Lang is the larcenist with a heart of gold frustrated with a system that won’t allow second chances. Rudd’s Lang is also quite charming in a goofy way. Rudd is for Ant-Man what Michael Keaton was to Batman; an unlikely choice of actor to headline a super-hero film. And, much like that casting a generation ago, it works. He’s a fallible hero that one can root for. Douglas’ Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man in the source comics) is as crotchety and stiff as his gait; an interesting acting choice for the usually spry actor. Douglas’ performance is by turns comical and nuanced, serving as straight man to Rudd in many respects, and the two actors bounce off each other almost effortlessly. This film hinges on the mentor/student, father/surrogate son dynamic, and the actors deliver. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is just as strong and dynamic as the two leads. She juggles her character’s pseudo-sibling rivalry with Lang with the conundrum of resenting her father as much as needing his approbation. If she is a damsel-in-distress, it’s of an emotional nature as she is as heroic as the super-hero-in-training is. Much of thecomic relief is provided by Michael Peñz, T.I., and David Dastmalchian as “Luis”, “Dave”, and “Kurt”, respectively; three larcenists of differing expertise whose depictions border on racism. Yet Reed’s direction and the actors' performances offset the caricaturization. The trio provide back-up for “Team Ant-Man”, and do so in engaging, hilarious fashion. Bobby Cannavale takes what could have been a hated unwanted step-father trope and humanizes it. His character is not quite a bad guy; you still don’t want to like him, but it cannot be denied that Paxton is a decent bloke. The short end of the stick award has to go to Judy Greer who, as in the recent Jurassic World, only appears to establish subtextual conflict and not much else. 

The film is not without its faults. For example, the CGI is somewhat uneven, the most glaring example of which are the depictions of the ants, as it takes some time for the viewer to figure out whether the ants are supposed to be organic or mechanical. On the flip side, once Ant-Man goes into shrinking mode, the mundane transforms in size and scope to spectacle (you won’t see raves or sewers in the same way again). The film veers into Interstellar territory at one point, hinting at another corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but takes its own spin on it conceptually and visually…which is especially trippy, for lack of a better term, in 3-D.

Another major sour note is Stoll’s performance as the “Lex Luthor/Luther the Anger Translator love child” antagonist, Darren Cross. His character is disjointed; as if Stoll hasn’t been given enough direction by Reed and, as a result, Stoll seems unsure if the intention of the character is straight or burlesque. His performance is out of sync with the rest of the cast, which makes him unlikeable for all the wrong reasons. Its a misstep that brings a good portion of the film down.

The action is low-key compared to the film that immediately came before it; however. that’s not to say that it’s tiny in any sense. The size changing effects are effectively realized and interestingly applied in combat.  There’s one sequence with a surprise (not so much thanks to commercials) character that utilizes another Marvel Comics storytelling hallmark to great, fun effect, its conclusion is as satisfying as any Hulk/Thor slugfest would be. The film manages to balance the super-heroics with light hearted comedy, a combination that’s reflected in Christopher Beck’s entertaining score. There are other shout outs and Easter eggs to Marvel lore both comic and cinematic, but they work within the story and are not too distracting. It also features one of the better executed yet absurd action climaxes of any film in recent memory. 

Ant-Man is nothing you would expect, and everything you could enjoy. It’s not world-shattering drama, and it shouldn’t be. In the grand scheme of the MCU, it may be a tiny film, but it’s large on heart. It proves that a super-hero film doesn't have to take itself too seriously. It's tongue-in-cheekieness is it's main selling point and makes it what super-hero films should If you're into the genre, then Ant-Man is for you. See it. Don't sell yourself short. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

WHEN SECOND BA-NA-NA BECOMES TOP BA-NA-NA: "Minions" Are Light On Plot But Heavy In Adorableness [Minor Spoilers]

Given that the tiny creatures stole the proverbial show in both Despicable Me films (and have provided social media meme fodder for the years since), it was only a matter of time that the animated, yellow Tic Tacs that are the Minions wound up with their own, stand-alone film. 

The plot starts at the beginning of time, where the Minions (voiced by Pierre Coffin) evolve from single-celled organisms to a tribe seeking an evil genius to follow. When their efforts prove futile, they hide in exile for an unspecified long period of time, wasting away from a lack of purpose until minion Kevin, with the aid of Stuart and Bob, goes back out into the world to find a evil overlord worthy of following, Their efforts eventually lead them to 1968 New York and, eventually, to the evil Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her swingin' husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), who vie for control of the British monarchy. 

The plot is threadbare, but in a film like this there really is no need of one as this film is not Despicable Me. In that film, the strength of the Minions as characters came from their non-sequeteur shenanigans, which countered some of the film's angst. That's not to say that there isn't any drama here; Kevin's quest is one of recognition as much as it is for the good of the Minions, for example. But the drama, such as it is, is minimal because the story really serves to allow the Minions to have a purpose to their manic, adorable antics for an hour and a half. That being said, the voice actors, which also include Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Jennifer Saunders, and Geoffrey Rush as the narrator, are clearly having a good time with the material. As Scarlett Overkill, Ms. Bullock is no "Cruella De Ville"; however, her performance services the story well though it pales by comparison to Hamm's Herb, who practically steals the scenes from her...and even from the Minions themselves a couple of times. 

The Despicable Me series of films' go-to themes of family, self-actualization, and overcoming adversity are revisited here, with more cute and cuddly results. If nothing else, this films prove that the Minions are the real backbone of the entire franchise. The film moves at a brisk pace, every moment entertaining. The animation detail is what you've come to expect from these films, i.e. detailed, bright, and enjoyable; even the most tertiary of characters are beguiling, with one in particular midway through the film being a particular standout.

In all, Minions is zany, madcap fun, replete with pop culture nods, crisp computer animation, and delightful vocal performances. It's really difficult to review a film like this because it is less a movie and more a string of vignettes that entertain to varying degrees. Regardless, this is a film that will delight both children and adults, and is guaranteed to have one leaving the theatre with a smile on their face...and an inexplicable craving for bananas. 

Friday, June 26, 2015


No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

The above quote is from Justice Anthony Kennedy in today's Supreme Court landmark ruling regarding same-sex marriage in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges.

It's not so much that the times are changing as much as our country is starting to catch up with the times.

Or, put more's about damned time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

EXTINCTION AVERTED: "Jurassic World" Reinvigorates A Stagnant Franchise [MINOR SPOILERS].

Have you seen the trailer for the upcoming Vacation reboot? It showcases a scene from the film that contains this batch of dialogue:
     “So, you want to redo your vacation from thirty years ago?”
     "This’ll be completely different."
     “I’ve never even heard of the original vacation.”
     “Doesn’t matter; the new vacation will stand on its own, okay?”
When films get meta with their dialogue, you know there’s a giant elephant in the room.  Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow (who also served as screenwriter alongside Rick Jarra, Amanda Silver, and Derek Connolly), is well aware of its own elephant; or, in this case, dinosaur.  “No one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore,” claims Park Operations Manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who addresses that very sentiment in this franchise-reboot-that-isn’t. Taking place twenty some years after the events of the original Steven Spielberg-helmed CGI extravaganza (who serves as executive producer for this outing) both in fiction and reality, the film reveals it's self-awareness with its in-story acknowledgement that an entire generation (or two) has since become jaded with the technical wizardry that brought the original and its sequels to life. 
In the time since the events of Jurassic Park III, Isla Nublar has been rebranded “Jurassic World” and is run by Simon Masrani (Irrfan Kahn), the CEO of the Masrani Corporation and successor-in-ownership to the island who wants to provide a bigger, better theme-park entertainment for the masses. To that end, he employs bio-engineering scientists to clone dinosaur hybrids to meet that demand; culminating in the appropriately named Indominus Rex.  Claire (Howard) is a workaholic who would rather run the park 24/7 rather than spend some quality time with her park visiting, estranged nephews Gray and Zach Mitchell (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, respectively). When Indominus Rex starts acting erratically, Claire reluctantly enlists the aid of resident Velociraptor expert and trainer, Owen Grady (a rugged Chris Pratt); a man with whom she is most uncomfortable with. As with all previous films in the Jurassic series, when the big, bad dinosaur gets loose, mayhem ensues.
The film follows the current trend (as with the recent flop Poltergeist, the aforementioned Vacation, and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens) of creating a whole new franchise upon the bones (or fossils) of what has come before. Brand name recognition is the name of this game, and Jurassic World by its very nature plays it (which also includes some rather over-the-top product placement; in fact, its usage of same is as metatextual as the film itself, given that actual theme parks are replete with store brands littering their landscape). Given the under-performance of relatively original material such as Disney’s Tomorrowland, expect this re-branding to become the norm. These films want to eat that proverbial cake and be taken on its own merits despite riding the coattails of its predecessors, but Jurassic World (disingenuously or subversively, depending on your perspective) tries to serve as commentary to the very nature of the beast/studio that feeds it. Jurassic World the locale is a Disney/Universal studio theme park hybrid brought to the life in a “nudge-nudge/wink-wink” fashion, with Indominus Rex acting as the reptilian epitome of that insatiable corporate need for "bigger and better". The film serves as a cautionary tale even as it revels in the very tenants it cautions against.
The whole “it’s not wise to fool with Mother Nature” trope is a defining hallmark of this series; however, given the ongoing controversy regarding genetic mutation and GMO’s in the food chain, it seems even more topical than ever…especially when said research is done for military application (as epitomized by the character of Vic Hoskins, played with scenery-chewing glee by Vincent D’Onofrio). These allegorical inferences weight the film with more resonance than it probably would have.
Not that it needed it. In terms of pure popcorn summer spectacle, the film is a visual delight. It’s one of the few films wherein the special effects are virtually flawless; surprising given that 3D filming, especially in IMAX, tends to make the weaknesses stand out. The dinosaurs have never seemed so textured or real, and their interactions with the actors are practically seamless; the accuracy of their design, however, is a subject not to be debated here.
If the film is anything to go by, Director Trevorrow, a relative newcomer to the world of blockbuster filmmaking, understands that it’s the suspense as much as the visuals that made Jurassic Park stand out from its lackluster sequels. He paces his scenes with enough apprehensive anticipation that the payoffs are more than effective. In terms of pacing overall, the story has a tight flow that makes its two hour and five minute run time seem shorter than it is. Unfortunately, characterization is sacrificed for the sake of expediency. Subplots regarding family abandonment and emotional distance are given cursory lip service and, quite frankly, add nothing to the narrative; they could have been completely excised and wouldn’t have affected the overall story in the slightest. There are minor continuity issues, with one so particularly glaring as to take one momentarily out of the film; however, for all the fantastical elements in the film, none is more unbelievable than the idea of Claire running all over the Isla Nublar in high heels. Eggs, both Easter and dinosaur, abound for the pterodactyl-eyed fans of the series; but one of the film's strengths is to be able to tell a complete self-contained story that can be viewed without having any knowledge of its cinematic predecessors.
The filmmakers opted to continue the mythology without the original cast of characters, save BD Wong as franchise carryover Dr. Henry Wu, in keeping with its “look-towards-the-future-while-keeping-a-toe-in-the-past” philosophy; a wise decision, for an overabundance of nostalgia would have kept the focus of off Chris Pratt’s surprising performance. Owen could have easily have been played as “Star Lord.v2”; however, Pratt excises charming goofiness and channels a bit of old school rakish, Clark Gable, no-nonsense swagger. His performance is the solid foundation which anchors this film. In terms of character development and growth, such as it is, Bryce Howard’s Clarie gets the most of it. In what starts out as a blank slate performance, she convincingly gets the audience invested in her character’s fate. Yet, one must wonder how many key grips with spritzer bottles were on hand to constantly spray water on her entire body, since she spends most of the movie looking so oiled up one has to wonder if she’s running from dinosaurs or about to mud wrestle one. As her nephews, Simpkins’ and Robinson’s characters exist to give a child’s (or at least, pubescent) point of view and someone for the youngsters to identify with (after all, Jurassic Park, much like its real-life mouse-led counterpart, existed for children, both literal and figurative). Kudos to Trevorror for not allowing the Mitchell brothers to fall victim to the “precocious child” syndrome that plague most movie kids. While the boys seem like jaded know-it-alls in the beginning, it doesn’t last. In the face of pure terror, their reactions ring true, their narrow escapes believable. Despite hiccups in their individual acting styles, the two actors do sell their fraternal relationship.
The film's powerful majesty, both in CGI and cinematography, would be undermined if the score were not up to snuff.  Thankfully, Michael Giancchino’s score is up to the challenge, though his mandatory inclusion of maestro John Williams’ themes and motifs reveal the weaknesses within his own original compositions. Nevertheless, they meld together to create an evocative, thrilling, and poignant sound that, while not equal, is to this film what Williams’ orchestrations were to the original.
Ultimately, the question to be asked is whether or not Jurassic World invokes the same wonder and majesty that Jurassic Park did a generation ago. To an arguably lesser degree, it does; but not due to the improvements in special effects, digital or otherwise, over the past twenty-plus years. It’s the focus on the story. The film could have fallen victim to “bigger is better” excess it blatantly extols in self-aware fashion. Instead, it focuses on the more story and relationships (such as they are), which is what drives any storytelling of note…that, and the backdrop of cool looking dinosaurs. No one would be impressed with films just about dinosaurs…the human element is what counts.
If this film serves as any indication, the Jurassic franchise is in no danger of going extinct for the foreseeable future.

Friday, May 22, 2015

PALE AS A GHOST: "Poltergeist" Cannot Exorcize The Specter Of The Original Film

The recent trend of rebooting / remaking / rehashing past franchises shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the decrying of Hollywood’s lack of originality, the fact remains that reboots are generally met with success of varying degrees; especially given Hollywood’s belief that today’s generation couldn’t be bothered with the films their parents grew up with. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Poltergeist is added to the ranks. However, reboots carry new sensibilities and new spins on familiar situations; some work, some don’t. Further, to remake a film, franchise, etc., will inevitably invite comparisons to the original.  In the case of this 2015 retelling of this classic film, the proverbial devil is in the details, but unfortunately a satisfying experience they do not make.
The situation is the exactly the same.  A family moves into a house on a new development project. However, the house is haunted by restless spirits known as “poltergeists” which kidnap the family’s youngest daughter. Thus, the parents resort to extraordinary means to get her back. The original film 1982 film directed by Tobe Hooper and executive produced and primarily written by Steven Spielberg, considered one of the seminal horror films of the 1980s, casts a long shadow. Director Gil Kenan and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire seem painfully aware of that fact, as the specter of the original casts a shroud over the entire production, right down to the changing of the main characters’ names and, in some cases, genders (the house is even devoid of a swimming pool). The thing about the original film was that, despite the supernatural shenanigans that took place on the screen, the true horror came from the film’s allegorical take on man’s greed and duplicitous nature, which was the payoff in the film’s climax. Here, it is addressed one-third into the film then discarded; a clear indication that things will be different for those who have seen the original, but by the same token robs any power this film might have had because it gives nothing equally potent to match it. But when one considers that Sam Raimi of Evil Dead and Darkman fame is one of the producers, one can expect less outright scares and more humorous, tongue-in-cheek spooks.  
Given the technological special effects advances in the past thirty years, a lot that went implied in the first film is given a more in-your-face, literal interpretation which, while more potent visually, incongruously minimizes the horror empirically; though Kenan is not above using techniques that can be currently found in a “Halloween Horror Night” attraction. There are a lot of modern touches and sensibilities that update the story. The use of electronics and drones that pierce dimensional barriers, for example, that renders the film more sci-fi than horror. What (scant) scares do come stem from the modern “jump scare” style of filmmaking, making it seem more derivative than it already is. Though the film is not a parody, there are moments that it seems to veer towards it. The set ups engender more anticipatory giggles than fearful foreboding (That being said, anyone afflicted with coulrophobia would be wise to avoid this film).
With a runtime of 93 minutes, the film seems almost like the Cliff Notes of a story. Instead of taking the time of building actual suspense, Kenan’s direction moves at a quick pace, as if impatient to get to the next scary moment or “isn’t this cool” shot. If there was ever a horror film of the modern era that suffered from attention deficit syndrome, this one is it. 
Unfortunately, another aspect as to why the scares are deficient stem from the fact that it's hard for a viewer to become invested in one-dimensional characters who are engaged in hinted-at character arcs that do not allow for any emotional payoff. As patriarch Eric Bowen, Sam Rockwell is basically playing Sam Rockwell, and an annoying one at that. His performance is so lackluster the viewer has no clear indication as to where he’s emotionally at. As his wife Amy, Rosemarie DeWitt is appropriately distraught, fragile, and fallible. The most charismatic performance comes from Kyle Catlett as the precocious and endearing Griffin Bowen, who’s perhaps the most capable of the entire family and has the closest thing to a character arc. Kennedi Clements as Madison Bowen is cute and vulnerable, which seems to be the only requirement for this character in either version of the story. The only other performance that stands out is Jared Harris as the “exploitive-television personality-paranormal investigator-John Edwards” analogue Carrigan Burke, who takes the place of Zelda Rubinstein’s “Tangina” from the original. His character is earnestly entertaining; however, what character arc he has and shares with fellow paranormal investigator Dr. Brooke Powell (Jane Adams), is given lip-service only with a relatively minor payoff.
Poltergeist is, in a word, perfunctory. At best, it’s a superficial, gee-whiz yet lackluster summary of a story that unfortunately has no meat to it. What is missing is any empathy for the characters or their situation, or any subtext that the best horror films are infused with. Unfortunately, cheesy though the effects may be to the modern eye, the specter of the original 1982 film hangs over this one like a shroud, and not even an exorcism can salvage it.

Friday, May 1, 2015

AGING WELL: "Avengers: Age of Ultron" Keeps Up The Stride Of The Marvel Movie-Making Machine [MILD SPOILERS]

Way back in May, 2012, I concluded my review of Marvel's The Avengers with the following statement:
"Long story short: Go See The Damn Thing! And one last thing...what the hell is Marvel going to do for an encore?!"
Three years later, we have the answer in the form of Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron, a cinematic bombast of flash and spectacle guaranteed to leave the viewer exhausted by the end of the film, yet still somehow left wanting more.
The film begins at a breakneck pace, with the Avengers, comprising of Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruafflo and Lou Ferrigno), Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) invading an overseas H.Y.D.R.A. secret base in order to retrieve Loki’s scepter. Upon realizing that the artifact holds the secret to developing AI technology that could create a peacekeeping force that would obviate the necessity of the Avengers, Stark enlists Banner's aid to create Ultron (James Spader, Less Than Zero; Sex, Lies, & Videotape), a robot meant to be the first line of defense against interplanetary threat. However, upon gaining sentience, Ultron reinterprets its directive to assert that the only way to save humanity is to destroy it and, with the aid of the super-powered twins Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Godzilla; Kick-Ass) and Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen; Godzilla, Oldboy), sets out to destroy without but not before destroying The Avengers from within.
One of the main obstacles this film had going in was that the first Avengers was so epic in scope and execution that the sequel had to be even bigger in all respects. Joss Whedon, both director and scriptwriter, accepted said challenge. The need for character introductions having been obviated by all previous Marvel films, Whedon wastes no time with exposition; which is incongruously both its strength and weakness. Plot-wise, many assumptions are made in the beginning without fully being logically reasoned out and, while jarring, this “cliff notes” approach makes sense given that Whedon crams as much action and character interaction within a two hour, twenty minute time frame; which he does with mostly positive results.
Whedon's main strength as a story teller has been characterization, and it shows here; though he has the advantage in that the main players wear their roles like a second skin (including Samuel L. Jackson as a weary Nick Fury and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill).  Nevertheless, Whedon's ability to juggle the screen time of the main cast is to be commended.  Hawkeye and The Hulk are given more to do this time around, which is likely due to the fact that neither carry a Marvel franchise of their own. Unfortunately, Thor is given the short shrift in terms of characterization, but it is by no means a slight as his own journey is still essential to the plot.  There is really little to say about the main cast other than the fact that despite having played these characters many times before, there is no sense of “been there, done that” fatigue that afflict most heroic franchise actors (looking at you, Christian Bale); in some cases, quite the opposite. Evans’ seems even more invested in the Captain America persona than ever. A subplot involving The Incredible Hulk and The Black Widow adds a new wrinkle that allows for an extra bit of spice to Ruafflo’s and Johannsen’s performances.  Downy, Jr. continues Tony Stark’s cinematic psychological evolution, his manic performance bringing in all of Stark’s previous experiences to bear in a manner that drives the central conceit of the plot forward. Renner’s Hawkeye is also given an added character development that grounds the film with a much needed and necessary human element. 
Of the newcomers, Spader, who provided motion capture work along with voice over, chews the scenery as the malevolent Ultron. His engaging in sardonic colloquialisms is a bit jarring at first, but a refreshing change of pace from the usual robotic intonations of robots in other films. Both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen bring youthful, brashly cocky energy to their roles and their performances mesh well with the original six. Also of note is Marvel mainstay Paul Bettany in his roles as both Jarvis and the Vision, as he imbues both AI constructs with surprising poignancy. Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie make extended cameos as James Rhodes/War Machine and Sam Wilson/The Falcon, respectively; their presence adding welcome comic relief.
The film teeters on political commentary. Though the words “liberal” and “conservative” are never uttered, the ideological lines between offensive versus defensive warfare are clearly drawn and debated, though given the events of the film more weight is given to one side. Whedon manages to incorporate it into the story without either being heavy-handed or losing sight of the fact that this is a superhero film. However, this does lead to one of the few missteps in the film: The overused “hero v. hero” trope. While it fits within the story’s context, it takes place too frequently here. Its inclusion is understandable given that AoU serves as a thematic precursor to the plot of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War (as well as set-up for Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War) but within the context of a self-contained film, it's tiresome despite its impressive spectacle of presentation. However, it's not only a narrative staple of the Marvel “brand”, but it serves as required counterpoint to their heroism at the film’s climax. It’s refreshing to know that the filmmakers are aware of the types of heroes they are, with the ability to “beat the bad guys” while ensuring the safety of civilians, and inspiring hope while doing so. Warner Bros. should be taking notes.
Another annoying trope is the “Hollywood-think” of “we’re paying this actor to play this role so we’re getting our money’s worth by seeing his/her face.” All well and good, but when one is going to see a movie about superheroes, they expect to see said superheroes in their full regalia on screen, not have Steve Rogers wearing the majority of his costume sans mask/helmet. (Never mind the fact the amount of times Steve is referred to by his nom de guerre can be counted on one hand with fingers left over. He’s Captain America when in action! Don’t shy away from that! Embrace it! Sheesh!)
The special effects are top notch, with special mention towards the CGI renderings of both The Hulk and Ultron, though the 3D viewings showcase their relatively minor weaknesses. The battle scenes are exciting; well-orchestrated and choreographed, even if some beats go on far longer than they should. In fact, so much is thrown onto the screen, it almost leads to sensory overload, especially in IMAX 3D. If the intent was to create a roller coaster effect while remaining stationary, it succeeds. It should be noted that said success is bolstered by the musical arrangements of Brian Tyler accompanied by Danny Elfman, who manages to improve upon Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme. While Tyler has said in interviews that he wanted to create a score reminiscent of John Williams’ Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978) (though more heavily on the latter than the former), it’s Elfman’s contributions that are more evocative of those classics. Their combined effort is a sublime acoustical experience which offers subtle integrations of the heroic themes from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Thor: The Dark World (2013) (the latter two also by Tyler). Unfortunately, much of the score’s nuance (yes, there is nuance) is lost amid the sound effects. Nevertheless, it effectively does what any good score should do, which is highlight and season the unfolding events for maximum visceral punch.
Avengers: Age of Ultron starts 2015 summer season with a nuclear bang, filled with even more thrills, chills, pathos, triumph, and fun than its predecessor, even if it verges on taking itself way too seriously.  In conclusion…well…please refer back to the quote referenced above.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Periodically, American Culture Critic will host guest reviews. The first of these appears below, as special correspondent Jim Chiu has generously and graciously donated his time to pen the review of the polarizing film Fifty Shades of Grey, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, which appears below. Many thanks, Jim.
"Fifty Shades of Grey was a surprise for me. It is difficult, when a film receives as much hype as Fifty Shades has, to go in without expectations. However, I was pleasantly taken aback by the cinematic work I ended up viewing.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a film whose underlying theme is contrast and dichotomy. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey (Jaime Dornan) are two polar opposites who engage in a whirlwind romance. Unfortunately, this film plays out more as a tragedy than a romance film. But before we get to that, let me play homage to the people who really brought this film to life: the production crew.
Returning to the themes of contrast and dichotomy, the production crew, from cinematographers to wardrobe to set designers, all clearly worked with a unified vision in order to highlight them. Anastasia Steele’s apartment is exactly what one would see in a college apartment. It is chaotic and eclectic.  Christian Grey’s office and home are cold stone and devoid of warm colors. The only room in Christian’s home with any color in it is his “red room of pain.” Each set piece highlights an aspect of the characters’ life. Moving from set piece to set piece colors the interaction between the characters.
The inestimable Danny Elfman’s work is amazing in this film. His musical choices complement each scene and create an ambiance in which the actors play their roles. From the college rock on campus and in bars to the dark orchestral pieces that play in the “red room of pain,” Mr. Elfman’s touch cannot be mistaken.
The cinematography is masterful in this film, which especially heightens the use of contrast visually and thematically. Great care was taken to ensure the “red room of pain” scenes enjoyed the warmest lighting, creating contrast shadows and at the same time, it felt like the focus was brought to razor sharpness. These scenes were the show piece of the film and mean to communicate the fact that, in these moments, both characters felt more passion, more clarity, and more intensity than any other spent outside this room.
All this excellent work is wrapped around a story that is controversial to say the least. I feel it is outside the scope of this review to tackle the social topic of abusive relationships, so we will focus on the storytelling. Anastasia and Christian are not only a couple at odds with each other, but with themselves. Each character is found battling their own nature and their own perceived limitations throughout the film. Unfortunately, this can come off as a bit sophomoric in its delivery. Anastasia’s attempt to deny her attraction towards Christian is an excellent example of this. That said, there was an incredible amount of subtly to both actor’s performances as what was not said was just as important as what was said out loud.
Overall, while this film stumbles in places, Fifty Shades of Grey was an impressive and intense piece of filmmaking."

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Anyone who ever saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the television series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (or even read the source comics all the way back to the sixties) are aware of H.Y.D.R.A., Marvel's version of SPECTRE from the James Bond series of films. It's a fictional evil organization whose motto is succinctly put: "Cut off one head, two more grow in it's place." This underlying conceit of motto is what makes that particular organization so insidiously effective ... the idea that an ideal cannot be killed. You may kill one agent, but two others will have taken that agent's place.
A tragic situation took place in Paris yesterday. Three armed Islamist terrorists stormed the office of the satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" and killed 12 people and wounded 10 others, among them an two unarmed Parisian police officers, as retribution for the cartoons the magazine published satirizing Islamic extremism. Like all other terrorist attacks, it was meant to create an environment of fear and contriteness.
Instead, the opposite has happened.
Chances are many of you did not know of Charlie Hebdo (Admittedly, I never knew about it until the attack). Take a good look at the Internet; particularly social media. You know about it now. I'm sure your Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Pheed, etc. feeds are littered with not only stories of the attack, but statements from friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The unknowns and the celebrities, all decrying the attack and, further, posting ad infinitum the satirical cartoons (some censored, but mostly not) that provoked the attack. Instead of being suppressed, its being disseminated while political satirist cartoonists are producing new cartoons in the same vein as of this writing in solidarity and protest. As violent and tragic as the terrorist act was, it has provoked a response completely, exponentially, opposite to what was intended.
"Free speech" is not a uniquely American concept; it's a universal desire, especially to those who live under dictatorial regimes. But free speech, as made explicitly clear yesterday, is NOT free. It's a right that has to be claimed, asserted, continually fought for, otherwise it would be eradicated by those who would see it expunged from the proverbial face of the earth. But freedom (whether political, religious, spiritual, or what have you) is not a tangible thing that can be cut down by an AK-47; it's an idea that is worth living for, fighting for, and, as Stephane Charbonnier and his staff unfortunately learned, dying for. However, it doesn't perish with the martyred idea holder...but instead promulgates and radiates outwards to others who carry the torch and push the idea. Kill the one, and two others take it place. Or, as that old shampoo commercial asserts, "you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on..."
This is why terrorism must ultimately fail. While the purveyors of an idea may perish, the idea cannot. The current cultural awareness and response to these attacks is evidence of fact. The great irony in all of this is that the terrorists, in trying to promote their cause, have only undermined it further.
To paraphrase a pop culture icon, "Stay free, my friends."