Monday, June 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 27, 2018

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

Ten years.

Nineteen films.

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

A road that has led to Avengers: Infinity War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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