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 a the recipient’s career either winding down or 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 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). It this film, Chan's transformation is nothing short of astounding; his cherubic features 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 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 nature to it, befitting a character in that stage of life. While Chan has always been a self-deprecating cinematic presence, for the first time there’s a sense 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 as to where their sympathies lie regarding him. 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.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts (sharing screenwriting credit with five other screenwriters) and starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr., Jon Favreau, Jennifer Connelly, and Marisa Tomei, is the latest hard reboot in the Spider-Man cinematic franchise, and the first to be done under the Marvel Studios umbrella. It is also, without equivocation, the most enjoyable of those films, even as it strays the furthest from its source material. As a title, Homecoming has its tongue firmly planted in cheek; an acknowledgement of the character's returning to the "Marvel fold", so to speak. However, it serves as an evocative declaration that this is a different sort of Spider-Man film, and indeed it is. 

Following the events of last year's Captain America: Civil War, fifteen-year-old high school student Peter Parker (Holland) is chomping at the bit for another mission with The Avengers. Hoping to be called to action by Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), he instead finds himself being "nursemaided" by a reluctant, none-too-happy Happy Hogan (Favreau) and being told to keep his feet on the proverbial ground. When Parker stumbles upon a series of tech crimes being perpetrated by a gang led by Adrian Toomes (Keaton) and finds that the adults brush him off, its up to Spider-Man to try to save the day, while he attends high school, suffers indignities at the hands of bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), try to approach his crush Liz (Laura Harrier), and avoid detention. 

From the time the fanfare ushers the film's start, it practically proclaims an entertaining experience to come.  For example, instead of retreading on well-mined material (i.e., the actual origin, Uncle Ben), the story proceeds as if the audience is already familiar with those events. This alone would be refreshing even if it weren't so cleverly presented. The opening montage post-Marvel logo effectively recaps this Spidey's cinematic introduction from a different perspective while effectively establishing the tone, relationships, and conflicts going forward. Much like the opening shot of Robert Zemekis' Back To The Future (1985), it provides a subconscious shorthand that sets one up for what comes next. It's an impressive promise regarding storytelling, one that Watts and co. deliver on the entirety of the film's runtime.

As Marvel Studios expands its cinematic catalogue, there seems to be concerted effort to make each film and character unique in its own sub-world. In this case, Homecoming can be described as super-heroics by way of director John Hughes (indeed, director Watts has publicly stated this was the aesthetic he was going for). First and foremost, it's a coming of age story. It's about a teenager who's struggling with his own adolescence (who just happens to have arachnid abilities), and Watts presents the conflicts in Parker's normal life with as much weight as those inherent in his heroic identity. As such, don't expect the creepy stalker/self-assured possession of Tobey Maguire or the spastic twitching of Andrew Garfield. Here, Holland comes closest to his comic book counterpart's personality, his performance recognizing that Spider-Man's classic devil-may-care banter and bearing, mask Parker's adolescent insecurity. It would not be hyperbole to say that Holland's interpretation is a revelation except for the fact that he makes it seem so damn natural. There's not much suspension of disbelief required to believe he's a high school kid (even if he was 20 years old at the time principal photography concluded). He and his fellow classmates (with special kudos to Jacob Batalon as Peter's BFF/"chair man" Ned, and Zendaya as the snarkily-observant Michelle) are effectively convincing as high schoolers. But it's Holland who truly carries the weight of this film on his shoulders and, unlike the character he plays to a certain degree, he carries that weight effortlessly.

It's not just a coming of age story for Peter Parker. Surprisingly, given the considerable lack of screen time, this also works as one for the once and future Iron Man. The evolution of Stark's character over the course of a decade has seen him transform from an irresponsible man child to a mentor who "sounds like his father". Downey, Jr. plays up that undesired and uncomfortable change within the character in a satisfying turn. It's a change of perspective (one hinted at in Civil War), and inversion of character, that Watts exploits to great effect. Marisa Tomei's Aunt May is no dowager, but a thoroughly modern woman of certain charm, serving as basis for a film-long running gag.

But no hero can become one without a challenging villain. One of the main criticisms against the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the cookie-cutter, non-menacing nature of its villains (including Daniel Bruel's Helmut Zemo, though he was by far the most successful of them). That streak ends here with Michael Keaton, who takes arguably one of the lamest of Spider-Man's foes and makes him the most relatable, yet most effectively menacing and dangerous villains to date. His presence from his opening shot onwards elevates the film to a whole other level. His casting would bring about the requisite "from Batman, to Birdman, to Vulture" jokes, but his performance here is no laughing matter. His Vulture is a mixture of Carter Hayes' madness with Daryl Poynter's angst, Bruce Wayne's drive and Beetlejuice's mania. Yet for all that, it's a rare instance of understanding the motivations of the monster within, empathizing with him, yet still be in fear and awe of what he is capable of. Yet this role also proves how much he has developed as an actor, and how he has mastered the art of subtlety. One scene in particular stands out. Its a quiet one on the surface, but so full of subtext and nuance, it seems to belong more in a suspense thriller than a fantasy actioner. And yet his performance balances out Holland's with a wonderful give-and-take between actors that stands above the scenes that pre-and-proceed it. Rare on this blog are the words tour de force utilized, but this is one performance that merits the honorific. Keaton is nothing short of magnificent. 

Another complaint levied against this film from its inception is how far it strays from the source material. Given the behind-the-scenes back and forth regarding studio rights of the character, this is to be expected. For example, a justifiable argument is that having Spider-Man's suit be comprised of Stark tech minimizes the Peter Parker character's genius. Watts and the screenwriters both acknowledge and invalidate said argument organically in story. In other words, the trick is in the presentation...and this presentation separates it from its predecessors by inverting those films' formula: less angst, more fun. This film is FUN, plain and simple. So much so, that it stands apart from the other Marvel Studios' films even as this film firmly entrenches the character in it. A viewer would be cynically jaded not to be caught up in Holland's enthusiasm as the character. The stunts and the CGI are flying on all cylinders, and the humor is organic and unforced (including an unexpected cameo used to comedic effect). Easter eggs for the initiated abound. Michael Giacchino's score is evocatively rousing as it pays a pleasing homage to the past. The story contains no filler, moving at a pace which keeps the character moments as engaging as the action sequences, and the requisite "Chekov's Gun" is present, though among the most subtly presented in these series of films; so much so that it's a genuine surprise to those not looking for it. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming is an amazing film presented in spectacular fashion. Easily the best of the Marvel tales presented in the last few years, and, though this reviewer finds it slightly irksome that each stand-alone film is turning into a Marvel team-up, Homecoming is a stand-out film in its own right. Though it strays the most from the source material, with apologies (and thanks for setting the template) to Sam Raimi and Mark Webb, it's the best of Web-Head's cinematic adventures to date.  It entertains from first frame to last. Instead of groaning "another one", you'll demand "when's the next one".


I was speaking to a friend the other day around the time Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was released, when I mentioned that film was next on my review slate, said person stated the question that invariably pops up anytime the next entry in a line of sequels come out: "Ugh, do we really need another one?"

One may as well ask: Do we really need any film? Or any work of art? Films on their own are not necessary on a practical level, so they don't qualify as a "need" or "necessity". The industry, let 's not forget, was predicated by, and built for entertainment. It's ability to instruct and inform can be argued to be completely ancillary; a side effect, as opposed to it's raison d'etre

But for many others, some films do "need" to exist for a particular viewer or set of viewers. Some of those cinematic franchises touch people in ways others do not. Your milage as to their value may vary. However, there are some films that, despite the perceived onset of franchise fatigue, do need to be made.

Despicable Me 3 is one of those.

You might think I've taken leave of my senses, and you're probably right. After being fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing yet again to capture the 80's obsessed villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker, South Park), Gru (Steve Carrell) suffers an identity crisis funk until he is approached by the long lost brother he never knew, Dru (Carrell again, pulling double duty) and offered an opportunity to return to his villainous ways, even as Lucy (Kristen Wigg) suffers an identity crisis of her own, from both being unemployed and not knowing if she could ever act as mother to Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (newcomer to the series Nev Scharrel). All this compounded by a Minion Mutiny, led by Minion Mel (Pierre Coffin). It would be difficult to keep things fresh in a three film series (four, if you count The Minions), but at least directors Peter Coffin, Kyle Balda, and Eric Guillon do their best, even if the results is mixed. The compare and contrast between Gru and Dru, for example, is an interesting take, evoking Mad's "Spy v. Spy" aesthetic without aping their characterizations, with their relationship serving to show Gru in a different light. The push and pull between Lucy and the girls aren't given the type of conflict one would expect, and this is also a good thing, even as it feels like the undermining of story potential. Trey Parker's "Bratt" lives up to his name and, while it's not a vocal performance that could be deemed revelatory, he services his character well, even if annoying vocal call backs to Randy Marsh pop up now and then. The musical choices of Heitor Pereira and Pharrell Williams are interesting and, in a couple of cases, inspired, enhancing the zany shenanigans.

As always, the animation is top notch, with the characters, their actions, and movements exaggerated for great effect. In this film more than most, the story, such as it is, follows suit. What I mean to say is that the story is not as structured as the previous entries, and thus more random gonzo "squirrel" moments take place. Needless to say, the Minions' antics remain highly amusing, but the directors have learned that "less is more", and credit them to find a way to minimize their involvement that fits within the narrative. The humor is hit and miss, but much more the former than the latter this time around.

Given the above, it does seem like there's very little that makes this film stand out from the current staple of summer '17 films. Of course, that's me speaking as an adult critic...one that takes into account the audience he sat with. The target audience were enraptured, completely caught up in the film, laughing where they should, feeling apprehensive when the film called for same, and cheering at the climax. Manipulative? Absolutely. Name one of the competition's animated staple that isn't. The point here is that in a world that seems more bleak and uncertain than ever, and one that is reflected more so in entertainment, a film that allows itself to be silly and corny, and revels in it, is one that is "needed" more than ever. Despicable Me 3 is escapist, silly fun. That's no pork about that.

Friday, June 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

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

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

The answer seems to be go back to the beginning. 

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

Some moisturizer should clear that right up.

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

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

I'll never tell.

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

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

Complete with retro fashion.

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

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

Sometimes, the best expectation is no expectation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 23, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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