Wednesday, November 30, 2016

RETRO REVIEW: NOT DEAD YET, BUT FAST APPROACHING: "Live Free and Die Hard" is high on stunts, low on thrills, and shows its age.

[Occasionally, ACC will provide retro reviews of long released films. Below is one that was written for a writing for film course I took in the late 2007].

The 1990s must not have been an easy time for the founders of "Planet Hollywood". Attempting to move on from the 80s action roles that defined them, their forays into other types of films met with varying and often disappointing results, not the least of which was diminishing box office returns. Now, well in their 50s (and perhaps hoping to recapture some of that old 80s matinee magic), they have dusted off their respective properties: Arnold Schwarzenegger went robotic in Terminator III: Judgment Day one last time before becoming “The Govenator”.  Sylvester Stallone revived Rocky Balboa for one last eponymous and critically acclaimed bout (and hopes to strike a one-two punch with the forthcoming Rambo). So it comes as no surprise that Bruce Willis brings John MacLaine out of retirement for one last hurrah in Les Wiseman’s Live Free and Die Hard (2007), the fourth installment in the Die Hard franchise that, for all its modern elements, cannot help but show its age.*

When the FBI’s mainframe is hacked, they enlist reluctant NYPD Detective John MacLaine (Willis) to retrieve teenager Matt Ferrell (Galaxy Quest’s Justin Long), a hacker who is suspected of having something to do with the event. No Die Hard film would be complete without MacLaine going through some sort of domestic dispute, this time in the form of his estranged daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winestead). While the specifics change, the basic plot remains constant: A terrorist (Timothy Olyphant) holds innocent hostages in the name of revenge and profit. In this case, the hostage is the United States and the means cyber terrorism.  This film’s technological bent not only modernizes the concept for the sake of relevance, it also taps into a prevailing national fear. While the Die Hard films can not be considered existential by any stretch, this latest entry presents a threat scenario that could conceivably happen. Perhaps if this were a William Gibson novel, more consideration could be given to this possibility and how it could be practically resolved. However, this is a “blow-em-up” action film where practicality, logic, and the laws of physics are violate or outright discarded for the sake of thrills and chills.  On this level, the film only partially delivers.

As befitting its modern setting, the action and special effects get spruced up. Unlike MacLaine, director Wiseman seems to be enamored of all the benefits requisite with technology as the film brims with CGI effects to the point beyond spillage.  Unfortunately for the film, its special effects are not on par with those seen, say, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and its over-reliance on inferior CGI brings the viewer out of the action and removes any element of danger from the proceedings. Equally distracting are the various coincidences that drive the plot and rescues (especially in one narrow escape scene involving a Terminator statue) with each narrow escape more spectacularly incredulous than the last. However, these contrivances work if they are not dwelled upon.  Marco Beltrami’s score doesn't help matters.  The music is quite muted and sedate for a big budget action piece, which is surprising from the composer who scored such films as xXx: State of the Union, Blade II  and I, Robot.

Wiseman tries to give this film an espresso shot not only through the visuals, but with the actors themselves.  The film is infused with a self-conscious youth orientation in order to resonate with a new movie going generation to whom the Die Hard series is ancient history.  Long acquits himself quite well as the fish-out-of-water hacker who becomes “Robin” to Willis’ uncaped crusader. Though given little screen time, Winstead makes the most out of her role as MacLaine’s feisty daughter to the extent that one can believe she came from MacLaine’s gene pool.  Timothy Olyphant, while not quite fleshing out what is admittedly a two-dimensional role, projects a menace and evil that belies his good looks. One cannot help but note that Willis is the oldest of the principals and his (impressive) state of physical fitness, unfortunately, calls attention to that fact.  In the previous installments, John MacLaine was an “everyman” who one could conceivably have a beer with; one who went from marginally fit in the original Die Hard to practically a slob in Die Hard with a Vengeance.  Now trimmer, balder, and more determined (i.e. "bad ass") than before, Willis presents a MacLaine who, while still hurts and bleeds, teeters precariously close to the super action hero stereotype the series initially shied away from.  It is only Wills’ natural charisma that preserves the audience’s ability to root him on.  The film is replete with homages to the previous films (such as an agent’s particular surname, running through shards of glass, helicopters, claustrophobic hallways, etc.) that any fan of the previous films will enjoy, but also reminds the viewer that this is previously charted territory.

Very few sequels dare to go beyond the edict of “more of the same”, and rarely do they succeed.  For all its flaws and self-consciousness, Live Free and Die Hard makes the attempt and, while not wholly successful in that endeavor, is still an entertaining action romp, and isn’t that what all action movies ultimately aspire to be?

*NOTE:  All three actors reprised these roles in outings released subsequent to this review.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED: "Doctor Strange" Is A Good Film That Falls Short of Potential

As summer segues into fall, the blockbuster bombast gives way to quieter cinematic fare. "Quieter" being a relative terms when it comes to Marvel Studios. Their latest release, Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson and based on the character created by Steve Dikto and Stan Lee, is indeed quieter compared to its recent predecessor, Captain America: Civil War, in the way Guns 'N Roses is quieter in comparison to, say, Ghost or Slipknot. Strange acts as a departure from the Marvel standard as it explores soul-searching mysticism within the realm of super-heroics; an opportunity it never truly takes advantage of.

Neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is to medicine what Tony Stark is to technology, with personality to match. When an accident deprives the arrogant doctor the full use of his hands and effectively ends his career, Strange’s inability to accept his circumstances lead him to Nepal to seek the aid of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who can purportedly succeed where medical science failed. In the process, he embarks on an esoteric journey even as he finds himself in the middle of a war between The Ancient One and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) whose outcome can determine or seal the fate of the world.

The narrative follows the Clarke-ian principles as established in the Thor films, couching magic as a form of advanced science, perhaps to keep it grounded in believable terms (as believable as this universe allows, at any rate), but still maintains a foothold in the arcane. Of all the heroes rendered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, Doctor Strange had the potential of profundity, its premise a classic and intimate bildungsroman which could have transcended the conventions of the super-hero genre. The eponymous film does address these matters only cursorily, and cheekily tweaks them in a way that keeps the material from taking itself too seriously. After all, despite its mystical trappings it is, first and foremost, a crowd-pleasing actioner; not a lofty meditation of the human condition.

The character and his world, as envisioned by Ditko and Lee, were reflective of the eastern mysticism and psychedelic zeitgeist of the sixties; something that the visual effects team was keenly aware of. The strongest facet of this film is that it’s a Technicolor marvel (pun intended), visually combining trippy, kaleidoscopic aesthetics of the source material with a decidedly modern representation. Think Inception on acid by way of Dali (as in Salvador, not the Lama). The effects team show remarkable imagination with images that brightly pop off the screen, especially in 3-D format. Rarely does a film in recent memory elicit “oohs” and “ahhhs”. This film is that rare exception.

If only the story were as meticulously rendered. For a film whose subject matter is thematically intimate, it is almost…clinical…in presentation. Doctor Strange, more than most of the Marvel cinematic films, is a rite-of-passage story; a journey inward blanketed with Bruce Lee bon mots. Though replete with themes of mortality, time, egoism, and surrender, the journey still feels lacking. That is in no fault to Cumberbatch, who is thoroughly engaging in his role. He balances Strange’s arrogance with a sympathy that humanizes what could have easily been caricature. Unfortunately, Strange’s moments of epiphany and growth are stunted and glossed over, if not totally lacking. Without going into specifics, while the narrative story does account for Strange’s affinity for magic as the film progresses, the viewer investment of said epiphanies is lost, which undermines whatever resonance they could have had. He’s competent because the story requires him to be, and not necessarily because he’s narratively earned that competency. Regardless, its evident from his performance that he's enjoying the material, as solid an acting job as he's ever done and solidly anchors the film. 

That condition is not exclusive to Strange’s character arc. The film’s pacing stumbles. It’s like a sprinter: starts strong, moves at an even gait, and then suddenly rushes towards the finish line at a hurried, break neck pace. The ending feels rushed. By the same token, it’s a clever and beautifully rendered set piece that almost makes up for its unsatisfactory arrival. Unfortunately, the usually-reliable Michael Giacchino’s score for the film doesn’t quite distinguish itself outside of his other work. The story, locations, and themes practically scream for the use of more esoteric instrumentality, but the use of same, such as the sitar, is underused, with acoustical callback to the character’s ‘60s psychedelic beginnings reserved for the end credits. A shame, as a more comprehensive use could have elevated the action on the screen. Despite this, Giacchino’s score still services the film adequately.

The performances of the actors do make up for the narrative shortcomings. The casting of Tilda Swinton as “The Ancient One” was controversial; decried as another example of Hollywood white-washing. While the move was said to be predicated by concerns over the loss of much valued revenue from China (as the source character was Tibetan in origin), the casting of the androgynous Swinton acts as a sort of compromise in maintaining the character’s visual aesthetic, while preventing the film from being a sausage fest. The other female character of note, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is just that close to being extraneous given the amount of screen time she’s given. However, McAdams imbues her character with competence and a center that makes it understandable why the magisterial Strange would be so taken with her, while Swinton’s Ancient One is by turns magnetic and inscrutable, which incongruously serves the story while undermining it in terms of her character’s arc and motivation. Chiwetel Ejioforas Strange’s mentor/companion Mordo, however, is possibly the film's most realized performance. To say more would be to give away a major development to the uninitiated. Suffice it to say, that his particular journey is believable in context due to the strength of Ejiofor’s acting. Benedict Wong’s Wong character serves, in a sense, as Doctor Strange’s version of Guardian of the Galaxy’s Drax the a good way. Mikkelsen imbues Kaecilius with a sinuous subversion that almost makes the viewer question the justifications of his character’s actions, making for a villain above the Marvel norm. 

As to fealty to the source material, as with all Marvel film output, be prepared to be flexible. A few liberties are taken (especially with one core part of the lore), but the changes are not egregious enough for fans to call for director firings. Ultimately, the film is a blast, and the changes do not detract from that.

Doctor Strange is a mixed bag with the positives far outweighing the negatives. Its stunning visuals merit viewing in 3-D and vibrantly embraces the colorful richness of its source material. Despite its missed opportunities and cliff notes presentation, Strange is a decidedly fun romp that alternatively respects its material even as it playfully winks at it. Good as it is, it could have been a greater film. It wins the game, but does so without achieving a home run, a rarity for Marvel. But then, stranger things have happened.