Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Better Title Might've Been "Avengers: Infinity WOW!!!"

Yes, yes, I’m writing an essay about this one - because you just KNEW I would.  It might not really be terribly necessary, as every single human being on the North American continent will see it (at least once), as will large percentages of the human race on all the other continents… and possibly some of those Emperor penguins in the Antarctic as well.  This may not be a “review,” per se, as I loved it, and you knew I would, so you really didn’t come here wondering what my opinion would be. I suppose the only way to honestly convey my take on it is to not even attempt to summarize it in a way you non-nerd readers out there can follow, but instead just tell you how this two hour-thirty minute, seventy-something character visual explosion affected me.

All of that being said, I find writing this more difficult than you might imagine.  I first saw Avengers: Infinity War three days ago, then again the following day, and have struggled trying to start this piece.  “How can it be so hard???” you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, for short) has been a dream-come-true for those such as myself who grew up having these stories and characters become as important to us as daytime soap operas were to our mothers.  It’s a shared continuity featuring a varied cast of fascinating and colourful characters played by excellent actors starring in stories that have been adapted by talented filmmakers who actually respect the material. It’s something from our formative years that society has allowed us geeks to continue to enjoy as we hit our Golden Years without having to feel ashamed of it.

There are other film franchises out there that have been around longer and produced more films that this one, but none that has been as effective at stringing together a connective narrative throughout ALL of its entries and building to a dramatic conclusion like this one.  It has steadily been growing over the years by adding different characters and elements organically to create more depth as it goes. Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of all the work that went into building a universe by having it pay off in the biggest team-up movie ever made.

While this movie is one of those rare instances of a piece of incredibly over-publicized and over-hyped entertainment actually living up to said hype (and possibly even exceeding it), there’s never really been a film like it.  It’s not a standalone movie. It’s also not a direct sequel to anything. Do you need to have seen all eighteen of the other Marvel films to enjoy it? Will you be completely lost with so many characters flying/jumping about? Is more than two and half hours of all this going to feel like cinematic excess?  The answer to all of these questions is Yes… and No.

While I’m sure there are spoilers about the plot and its surprises out and about in mass media by now, I won’t be one to add to them.  Disney’s marketing people did a superb job of producing trailers and other TV/internet video spots that haven’t given away much of anything - and in some cases have even lied about certain elements.  The broadest stroke of plot-summary is that all these Infinity Stones that have been constantly popping up in the narrative of so many of these MCU flicks are finally being brought together to threaten the entire universe.  The Mad Monster from the planet Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin, beneath a whole-heap of computer-generated imagery) is gathering them with the intent of killing trillions of beings, and all of our scattered, various heroes must unite to stop him.  Pretty simple.

One of the most surprising things to me about Avengers: Infinity War is that it is very much the villain’s story.  Thanos is one of the best villains the MCU has yet had. Sure, that’s not saying much (Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash from Iron Man 2… need I say more?), but I do think it accurate to say that we feel his motivation much more than we usually do from other Marvel movie villains.  Brolin’s often understated delivery is an excellent contrast to Thanos’ intimidating stature and immense strength (he did WHAT to the Hulk??? DAMN!!!). While those who have seen Guardians of the Galaxy are aware of his relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), seeing how it began, and how important it actually was to him added an emotional weight to that part of the story that I didn’t really expect.  Thanos’ motivation is clear and simple, and makes sense from a certain point of view. There’s definite method to his madness, and time is taken to give him the depth required for a villain that has teased since 2012.

None of this comes at the expense of the heroes, though the film doesn’t spend any time introducing them to an audience that might be unfamiliar with them.  While no one hero has much of a chance to outshine any other (well, maybe Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has one or two more rays of light than the others…), this is a team-up, after all, so all of them are equally served by the screenplay, and all of them FEEL just like we’d expect them to after coming to know them in their own films.  It’s the characters that keep people coming back to this franchise, and this movie never loses sight of that. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (the guys who also made the last two Captain America films) seem to assume audiences have at least a basic idea of who these people are, and can accept those characters' contributions to the story.  If audiences can meet those two expectations, then they will be tremendously entertained by the interplay between several vastly different characters whom we would never otherwise get to see interact and hear speak to each other in some pretty hilarious ways.

Infinity War uses every minute of its two and a half hour run time, and I can’t for the life of me think of anything that didn’t need to be there.  I was prepared for one of those struggles that only we middle-aged men with ever-smaller bladders have to face, but that didn’t happen. Despite large segments of dialogue, the action seemingly never stops until the abrupt, cliffhanger ending.  Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America flicks, among other things) have managed to craft a film story effectively utilizes more characters that normally appear in several movies, and given them all useful actions and witty things to say, a feat that may be studied in screenwriting classes for years to come.  Sure, it’s not Shakespeare, but the Bard never had to write a play for seventy-five characters.

The only disappointment from Avengers: Infinity War is knowing that you’ll have to wait until next year’s Avengers 4 (yet-to-be subtitled) to find out how it all ends.  If you can forgive that, and you dig superhero movies in general, then you may find Infinity War to be the perfect movie. Well, not Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia kind of perfection, but you get my drift…

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Annihilation" Struggles To Be Something More Than Trippy S**t

Alex Garland makes it very difficult for me to review his movies.  Of course, he doesn’t care, nor should he (of course, perhaps you don’t, either, for that matter, nor should you).  The noted screenwriter of flicks like 28 Days Later, Dredd and Never Let Me Go has now directed two features himself, both of which have challenged me to like them despite my personal taste.  2014’s Ex Machina was hailed as a new-generation sci-fi masterpiece, and while I agreed with that label in general (see my own review for more detail), it was hard for me to totally love the film because I found its premise slightly offensive morally.  Well, Garland has gotten another muddled emotional/intellectual reaction out of me with his latest directorial effort, this month’s Annihilation, but for entirely different reasons.  

Based (somewhat loosely) on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation tells a story of a meteorite crashing into an idyllic scene—a lighthouse situated on the coast of a swampy national park.  Two years later, a strange, ethereal barrier has spread across that part of the land, looking like a floating but structured mixture of oil and water, shimmering in purple, blue, and yellow, standing like a wall between our own reality and the unknown.  We’re told that teams of mostly military personnel have been going through the barrier, called the “Shimmer," for at least a year, but the expeditions have been unsuccessful in returning any information, as they all disappear without a trace.

The character upon whom we focus is Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor and Army veteran, whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was part of the last military team to enter the Shimmer.  She hasn't heard from him, or anything about him, for a year, and given the secretive nature of his mission, assumes that he is dead.  Just about the time she seems on the verge of accepting his apparent death, Kane reappears inside the house.  He seems something of a blank slate, though, as he doesn't remember how he got there, what or where his mission was, or what happened while he was on it.

Events take them to a secret base called Area X, just outside the Shimmer’s boundaries, where Lena learns about the Shimmer, the meteorite, and the purpose of her husband's mission.  Lena decides that the only chance to learn what happened to her husband is to go into the Shimmer with the next team of explorers and find the source of its creation.  What she and the rest of the team find therein will be beyond anything they expect, and may change life on this planet beyond their ability to comprehend.

I really want to like this movie, and I actually do like all of its individual parts - it’s the collected whole that leaves me feeling unsatisfied.  Garland has, much like he did in Ex Machina, crafted a visually stimulating sci-fi experience, and told a story that will provoke lots of thought and discussion.  His choice of cast and locations, along with visual effects that do not overwhelm any of the scenes that use them, are all excellent (the sight of plants growing in the shape of human beings, for example, was both beautiful and inherently unsettling).  All of the actors/actresses deliver fine performances, and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s haunting, minimalist score greatly enhances the feeling of mystery inside the Shimmer.  

What frustrates me is how despite intentionally abandoning the notion of directly adapting the source novel, and merely telling a story based on how he “remembered feeling after reading it” (his words, not mine), he hasn’t come up with a story any more enjoyable to follow than VanderMeer did in the novel.  That's not to say that the story, the science, or the final point of the film doesn't make sense - quite the contrary, the concept of DNA alteration, and different forms of life possibly modifying our world to become a better fit for it is fascinating.  After all, if there is life beyond our planet, couldn't we also assume that such life would be beyond our understanding of life?  Does an extraterrestrial entity even need a goal or a reason to do what it does?  What if it just does those things because it’s supposed to?

I understand that we as an audience are meant to interpret the story how we each see fit and discuss the various interpretations amongst ourselves, and I have no problem with that.  I suppose how I’m left feeling is that, much like I did with the novel, we don’t learn enough about any of the people involved in the story to really care what happens to them.  The team that accompanies Lena into the Shimmer is made up of four other women who, like her, are as one character puts it, "damaged goods," but none of them are explored in any depth, so their ultimate fates really don’t carry any emotional payoff when those points in the film are reached.  Sure, the lack of emotional investment may have been a conscious choice of Garland’s, as a means of keeping the narrative an intellectual one, but I can only speak for my own reaction, and I was left feeling somewhat empty.

Given the opportunity to provide an explanation for what has happened or what has been learned over the course of Annihilation, one character offers what is perhaps the only rational response: "I don't know."  This is something of a rarity for a mainstream science-fiction film, and while I admire a film that wholly embraces the Unknown and the Uncertain, and certainly admire Garland’s filmmaking skill in crafting this one, I do wish he’d made me give more of darn about it.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Black Panther" is more Marvel gold...

Yay!  A new Marvel movie!  Two or three times a year over the last decade, we comic-book nerds get to rejoice in the evidence that our once-sneered-upon culture has taken over the zeitgeist of the early 21st century.  This year begins with Marvel giving the Black Panther character introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War his own film, and what a great addition to Marvel Studios’ ongoing series of movies it is. 

As Marvel tends to do, this particular movie fills something of a sub-genre - sure, it’s a “superhero” film, but much like Ant-Man was the “heist” film and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the “political thriller,” Black Panther is a James Bond film with spandex.  We learned in Captain America: Civil War of the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda, and how T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumed the mantle of king of that nation when his father was killed.  We also learned that wearing the crown of Wakanda also means wearing the spandex of the Black Panther, but it is in this film that we learn what makes Wakanda so special and how the rest of the world knows next to nothing about it. 

Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who revived the Rocky franchise with Creed, (a flick that I promise I’ll get around to seeing one of these days) works movie magic with a cinematic blend of super sci-fi, Bond-ian type gadgetry and villains bent on societal anarchy.  He and his cinematographer and design team have set up a rich culture filled with wondrous locations and several distinctly different tribes, details that help make the characters become individuals, and not merely place-holders.  Even better, the screenplay amazingly does not waste any of the characters.  

All of the warriors, both men - W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and M’Baku (Winston Duke), and women – Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the still-insanely beautiful Angela Bassett (who plays Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother) serve a purpose in driving the film’s story.  Heck, T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) effectively serves as this movie’s “Q” to T’Challa’s Bond.  The script fleshes out the royal family’s in-house drama wonderfully, and crafts a villain, “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), that is perhaps the Marvel movie universe’s second-best villain ever, after Loki.  

It is nice to have a stand-alone film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe every few times out, one that is not a TOTAL continuation of the ongoing narrative running throughout all eighteen movies of the series.  Ant-Man was like that, as was the first Guardians of the Galaxy.  This isn't really an origin tale, as T'Challa is already the Black Panther at the film's start, but his beginnings are touched upon.  Sure, Black Panther contains mentions of things that happen in other movies, and has characters that have been seen in other movies, but none of those items require you to have seen any of the previous titles in the franchise.

Of course, no movie is perfect (well, maybe Lawrence of Arabia was perfect, but that’s another discussion for another time…), and Black Panther is not without minor grumbles.  There are a few hints of story elements never followed through (Okoye and W’Kabi, for instance, are mentioned fleetingly as being lovers in what feels like might have been an excised sub-plot), and some of the CGI action shots were less than convincing, but if such things are the worst that can be found in the film, then I don’t have any problem calling it one of Marvel Studios’ best efforts to date.

While plenty of other writers, reviewers and commentators have waxed ad nauseum about the political, philosophical and “social justice” implications of this movie, I refuse to go down that rabbit hole.  This particular white Anglo-Saxon Protestant conservative heterosexual male is merely a comic-book nerd, and doesn’t apply labels or checkboxes to the factors that make up his entertainment.  That said, I can assure you with a broad smile that Black Panther is tremendously entertaining.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"All the Money in the World" is a buck or two short

A Ridley Scott movie always presents us with a stylized make-believe world or period of actual history, almost always perfect in detail and beautifully filmed, and his latest is no exception.  In All the Money in the World, he gives us the true story (well, a very movie-ized version of the story) of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty, III, the grandson of billionaire oil magnate Jean Paul Getty, who was not only the richest man in the world, but at the time was the wealthiest individual in all of recorded history.  Accounts of Getty’s uber-miserly ways are so extraordinary that it doesn’t require much imagination to believe that the $17 million demanded for his “favorite” grandson’s safe return was simply out of the question.  

The movie’s plot centers on Gail Harris-Getty (Michelle Williams), Paul's devoted, strong-willed mother, who unlike the elder Getty (Christopher Plummer), has consistently chosen her children over his fortune.  Getty does assign his “fixer,” former CIA man Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg) to do what he can to negotiate better terms for Paul’s release, and Fletcher and Gail find themselves in a tense, sometimes even hostile, partnership.  These three personalities have as much conflict between them as they as a trio have with the kidnappers, and the situation drags on so long that the original kidnappers actually “sell” their hostage to the local Mafia when they tire of the process. It makes me wonder if Rome in 1973 must’ve been something like the old Wild West, but with a lot more Vespas, fine wine and Communists around.

I am constantly amazed by Ridley Scott as a filmmaker.  Of course, he doesn’t hit home runs every time he makes a film, but it’s his skill as actually MAKING the things, even more so now that he’s breached the 80-years-of-age milestone, is almost beyond my ability to describe.  I defy anyone to point to any of his films and say it wasn’t at least a visual pleasure.  He is an underrated master of world-building, something essential when creating such historical epics as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, or the sci-fi environs of Blade Runner and his Alien films.

It seems the only thing the general public knows about this movie is how Scott decided, on his own accord, to completely remove Kevin Spacey’s performance as the elder Getty from the film after it was already finished and ready for its world premiere last November.  In less than four weeks, he rebuilt sets, reassembled the entire cast and crew, wooed Christopher Plummer to take on the role of Getty, reshot twenty-two scenes (IN JUST NINE DAYS!!!) and ran all that footage through post-production and editing, in time for a Christmas Day release.

While the feat of movie-making skill Sir Ridley managed in re-tooling this film just blows my mind and increases my admiration for him, the resulting film as a whole is far from his best, and not even as good as some other, more pedestrian thrillers.  As I did after such films of his as The Counselor and Body of Lies, I wonder about Scott’s ability to truly judge a screenplay, as despite never being bored by the plot, I didn’t think David Scarpa’s screenplay provided enough highs and lows in the tension level to generate any great emotional payoff.  

Michelle Williams as Gail Harris carries the film, and is very good in becoming a strange mixture of “nouveau riche” and “poor-but-proud,” all with a Long Island/Kennedy-esque accent and composure that keeps her character from coming across as a stereotypical panicked mother.  She is perfectly aware of how she is perceived to be so intrinsically linked to the Getty empire, but in a world in which money talks, the only hope she has of getting her son back alive is to enter into the Faustian schemes and plans Getty’s army of lawyers practice.

Christopher Plummer assuming the role of the elder Getty also probably made the movie even better than it would’ve been without him, as despite his callous, dead-on-the-inside actions, he relates a few things to us that show he was once actually a human being.   A performance that is all the more amazing knowing how little time he had to prepare for it, Plummer depicts Getty throughout the years, and there are some glimpses of a doting grandfather, but they’re all consumed by a lust for wealth that all too often comes at the expense of family.  Plummer elicits both disgust and pity from the audience in near-equal measure.

Mark Wahlberg, however, is woefully mis-cast in a part that demands an older, more grizzled man to properly convey the world-wise savvy and street-smarts his character supposedly possesses.  I’m sure the film’s financiers demanded a more bankable star like Wahlberg in the role to help ensure ticket sales, but I wonder if someone more everyday-Joe-ish like Paul Giamatti or Alfred Molina would’ve been more effective.

All the Money in the World won’t ever be mentioned in the ranks of great thrillers, but it does have a slow-burn type of dramatic intensity, all held together by at least two excellent pieces of film acting. It’s most impressive achievement to my mind, though, is to make me wonder if, given how Ridley Scott so quickly and effectively retooled his own movie at the last minute, wouldn’t it have been great if somebody had asked him to try and save Justice League…?

Friday, December 15, 2017

"The Last Jedi" Surprises, and In GOOD Ways

Like so many folks, I had theories about what would logically follow the events of The Force Awakens, and even had some ideas that ran contrary to all of those “Rey MUST be Luke’s daughter” stuff some people blathered on and on about.  Now, however, I sit here after my initial viewing of The Last Jedi (“initial,” because I already have tickets for two more showings in the next few days) wondering exactly what to say about it.  Not because I’m wondering if I liked it - quite the contrary, I most certainly did.  I’m just a bit stumped about what to say because The Last Jedi actually surprised me so.  

The first thing that pops to mind is that it sure seems to me that writer/director Rian Johnson was given LOADS more freedom to take this story where he wanted than J.J. Abrams was for the prior film.  For those of you who complained that The Force Awakens followed too many story beats from the original 1977 film, you darn-sight shouldn’t have any gripes about this one being too much like The Empire Strikes Back.  The opening crawl sets us up by telling us that the First Order is on the ascent across the galaxy, having run down General Leia’s Resistance to just a few hundred ships and personnel, and are closing in for the final kill.  While the remnants of the Resistance fleet flees from General Snarky-Pasty-Face… excuse me, I mean General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson)… our heroes are split off on separate missions that will hopefully all serve the same goal - escape Hux’s pursuit without being tracked to a new hideout. While Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows impatient about the seemingly risk-averse approach charted by Leia and her second-in-command (Laura Dern), John Boyega’s Finn teams up with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down a hacker (“codebreaker”) to sabotage the First Order’s new ability to follow the rebel ships in and out of light speed.

Simultaneously, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is right where The Force Awakens left her - on the island-dotted planet of Ahch-To, where she found Luke sulking in the remains of an ancient Jedi temple.  While hounding him to not only return to action, but also tutor her in the ways of the Force, she learns about why Luke ended up here and comes to find just how much raw power she may possess.  The dynamic between Luke and Rey feels similar to that of Yoda and Luke in Empire at first, but the payoff to which it leads is totally different.  

Mirroring the Luke/Rey relationship is the Rey/Kylo Ren(Ben) “relationship.”  As if there was any uncertainty before, The Last Jedi makes it very clear that Rey and Ben are the focus of this new trilogy, even more so than I would’ve guessed.  Adam Driver continues to excel as the incredibly powerful, incredibly insecure and incredibly immature villain of this new segment of the Star Wars saga, and he and Ridley convey the angst of dealing with the flavors of the Force so much better than did Hayden Christensen in the prequels (here's where you can debate whether they're better actors, or were better-directed... or both).  The Force-centric communication between these Kylo and Rey throughout the story plays out like some sort of cosmic FaceTime-ing, during which each attempts to insult/convince/cajole the other into coming around to his/her point of view.  Sure, it’s the old Dark Side vs. Light Side, but again, Rian Johnson twists things just enough to keep things from feeling exactly like the Luke/Vader/Palpatine conflict.  

The Last Jedi strikes a terrific balance of remaining true to how the previous seven (eight?) films FELT, yet makes it clear that we’re moving on to something new.  Nerds such as myself all over the world have been debating (and debating… and debating…) for the last two years about such earth-shatteringly important issues like Rey’s parentage and Snoke’s origins and Luke’s reasons for becoming a hermit.  Without revealing those answers, I will say that the answers are indeed given.  What so pleasantly surprised me about Rian Johnson’s script is how NONE of those answers are what I expected, much less guessed them to be and, to be honest, I don’t recall hearing anyone out in the Nerd-verse posit the correct answers over the last two years, either.

Sure, I may have a point of contention or two about some of Johnson’s story choices (“you mean that’s ALL the Captain Phasma we get AGAIN???”), but that’s just personal taste and not any reflection on the quality of the film.  Well, I guess I will say the first act seemed to be trying a bit too hard on the jokes (SPOILER - I am bitterly disappointed in Luke’s reaction to being handed his original lightsaber), but thankfully, things are played pretty straight for the final two acts, and Johnson does a wonderful job of giving us proper portions of things we wanted to see, things we needed to see, and things we didn’t even know we wanted to see.  Most notably to me was the final confrontation at the film’s climax, something Star Wars nerds have oh-so longed to see from an actual bad-ass Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, but in a fashion we never would’ve guessed in a million years.  

So apparently, I actually HAVE found a bit to say about The Last Jedi.  As with anything Star Wars-related about which I write, I qualify this essay by reminding you that I have forty years of love, affection and out-laying of hard-earned money involved in this franchise, so take my opinions with whatever grains of salt you think should be applied.  With that fair warning given, I tell you that The Last Jedi is what all Star Wars movies aspire to be, and what most of them turn out to be - a fantastic escapist space fantasy tale with characters we love going in directions that surprise us.  Space battles, lightsaber fights, Good vs. Evil philosophizing - it’s all there, and no matter what some naysayers might nay-say, we’d gripe if any of it wasn’t there!  Go see it.

Maybe my second (and third) viewings will give me even more to talk about...

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049" proves sequels can do it even better

It’s been thirty-five years since the original Blade Runner film was in theaters, and nobody saw it then.  Well, ALMOST nobody saw it, but thank God for VHS tapes and cable TV, for through these media, some folks realized what they’d missed.  Sure, that tacked-on “happy ending” felt out of place, and the sporadic voice-over narration that kept popping up in places was really unnecessary… but oh, THAT WORLD!  The visual style and atmosphere director Ridley Scott created, the Philip Marlowe-type character so cooly portrayed by Harrison Ford, the haunting score by famed composer Vangelis, and the ideas put forth about life and what it means! There’s a reason the market allowed (demanded?) Warner Bros. to keep funding the restoration and re-editing efforts that eventually led to Ridley Scott being granted the chance to craft a definitive edit of the film - the reason being that the seeds of a true science fiction masterpiece were always there, and 2007’s “Final Cut” of the film is exactly that.  

So here we are with Blade Runner 2049, set thirty years after the events of the first film, following a new “Blade Runner” (policemen charged with the task of retiring/executing rogue artificial humans, called “Replicants”), known only as “K,” and portrayed by Ryan Gosling.  He is assigned the task of tracking down one certain Replicant whose existence can, as his superior officer (played by Robin Wright) explains it, can “break the world.”  She doesn’t mean that literally, of course (that would be just plain silly), but apparently society would totally fall apart if this particular Replicant becomes known to the world at large.  In an attempt at “breaking” the world, the blind trillionaire industrialist (Jared Leto) whose company manufactures Replicants is also trying to find this particular rogue Replicant, and sends his Replicant assistant/hit-woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find it and, more importantly, stop K from finding it.

I won’t divulge much more plot than that, as doing so would (A) take too long, and (B) distract you from what this movie does best, which is the same thing the original film did best - create a world in a stunning, visually-breathtaking fashion.  Director Denis Villeneuve (director of both Sicario and Arrival) helms this film, with Ridley Scott producing, and a more appropriate choice to follow Sir Ridley could not have been made, as he so wonderfully keeps the SciFi-noir feel and vibe of the original film.  

Villeneuve also reteams with his cinematographer from both Sicario and Arrival, Roger Deakins, and this master photographer has topped himself once again. His work here is just as impressive (perhaps even more so) than anything he's done before. The constant gloom and rain, with neon and vehicle lights slashing through; the harsh whites in K's police station; the almost-red glow that permeates The Wallce Corporation's interiors. Combined with incredible set design and visual effects, this movie is a veritable package of Oscar nominations to come.

Ryan Gosling plays K with a weary, put-upon vibe, conveying a run-down-by-the-world personality that calls for our sympathy. The less he externalizes the character's feelings, the more it seems we get a gauge of them. Harrison Ford also returns as the original “Blade Runner,” Rick Deckard, and it is almost painful to see what has become of the character. Ford's naturally quiet acting style is used to great advantage here, as his low-tone voice and intense gaze tell us just how hard his life has been since we last saw him. Jared Leto's character, on the other hand, may not come across as frightening to the degree the original film's Roy Batty did, but Leto uses his own acting style to communicate an insane sense of the world and a warped view of how to use his power and influence to shape it. This change in the type of threat, from physical to philosophical, also distinguishes this movie from lots of sequels.

Some critics point to the film’s two hour and forty-four minute runtime as a fault, but I strongly disagree.  I never found Blade Runner 2049 to be slow.  Many have used the term "slow burn" to describe the pace of this film, and while I agree with that description, I'm reluctant to use it myself because I understand how that term can be interpreted by some to mean "it's long, and while some people like it that way, I probably won't." Having the process of K come across each plot-point, then have him silently react to it and process its meaning, is what kept me mentally leaning forward in my seat. The original film wasn't in a hurry, although to be fair, it didn't have as much ground to cover as this follow-up does. This movie moves along at a pace that enhances our anticipation of the next move in K's journey, and a more rapid delivery of plot-points would lessen their effect.

Blade Runner 2049 is the kind of movie that film students will be writing papers on for decades.  This isn’t your average “it’s so deep, man”-type of film. This is not Fight Club, American Psycho, or Inception, where the depth and complexity fade after a first viewing into simple entertainment. This is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris or, yes, Blade Runner.  A film that resists easy understandings.  A film that is open to endless intertextual reading when examined in light of its source material, director, cinematographer, and stars.  A film whose flaws reflect deep flaws in society.  A film that tries to tell us something novel about ourselves. A film that re-invents film form and language to shake you to your very core, if you’ll only let it.

Early box office returns show that this film may suffer the same fate as the original, in the sense that mass audiences are not flocking to see it on its first theatrical run.  Make no mistake, however - Blade Runner 2049 is at least as good as Blade Runner, and only time will tell if it reaches the legendary status of its predecessor.  The most impactful moments in this film are in a different class than anything in Ridley Scott’s original. They distinguish it as its own film, and justify its existence as a sequel in the age of the remake, reboot, and franchise.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"American Assassin" doesn't score a kill, just inflicts a flesh-wound

The movie industry has been trying like mad to give the public another spy-franchise for almost two decades now. Three and two-thirds of the five Bourne flicks have been pretty good, but films starring Tom Clancy’s and Clive Cussler’s properties haven’t been able to catch hold long-term, and nothing else series-worthy has really even made it into production (those God-awful Taken movies don't count as "spy" movies, either). American Assassin almost suffered the same fate, as author Vince Flynn's estate was on the verge of regaining the film rights to his Mitch Rapp character, since nothing had been done with it.  The property had been in various stages of development for years, but Lionsgate Studios finally managed to get something done in the nick of time to keep the rights.  Did legal haste make cinematic waste in this case…?

The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien plays Rapp, who proposes to his girlfriend while they’re frolicking on a beach in Spain.  Wouldn’t ya know it, that’s the exact moment a bunch of Islamic terrorists shoot up the beach, leading to some excessively melodramatic moments in which the girlfriend practically dies in Mitch’s embrace.  Eighteen months later, Rapp has become consumed with vengeance against those responsible for her death, and dedicates every waking moment to finding them, infiltrating them, and killing them.  The tragedy changes him from a guy who looks like he just walked off the set of "Teen Wolf" to a guy who looks like he's been living in the woods feeding off grubs and tree bark. Just as he's about to do everything he's been training himself to do, the CIA, led by Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) intervenes and takes him away.  Although he’s a loose cannon who can't take orders well or work with a team at all, Rapp is placed into a Black Ops program run by prickly Cold War vet Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), who is prepared to chew up and spit out the new kid.

Though this setup is considerably generic stuff, eventually revealing a scheme to sell some enriched plutonium lifted from an abandoned Russian facility to the highest bidder, as if straight from the playbook of James Bond, it’s the initial character development for Rapp that provides the biggest letdown.  He’s unhinged and out of control, losing his temper and hurting a fellow sparrer at a gym, before negligently wandering in front of bullets at a shooting range.  He’s so focused on his personal vendetta that his own well-being is of no concern; Rapp is the kind of unappealing, unlikely anti-hero who would be dead or behind bars before the film even starts. This is something of a conundrum for a project that tries earnestly to appear serious and severe.

Yet that feigned sincerity is another problem with such a storyline. There’s little levity, virtually no comic relief, and lots of brooding and self-pity.  At times, the film devolves into a mindless actioner, which is perhaps where it is most comfortable, but even when it arranges a bit of commendable suspense, there are other faults that develop.  Most notable is the main villain, who remains a few steps ahead of the protagonists, simply because he’s supposed to.  Then it’s up to Rapp to accidentally save the day – not through impressive investigatory skills or level-headedness, but with the help of pure luck. No one uses intelligence to outmaneuver the opposition; everyone happens upon fortunate scenarios or are given specific opportunities to overcome calamities. “You let emotion cloud your judgment; never ever let it get personal,” orders Michael Keaton’s character, but then Mitch proceeds to conduct himself solely through uncontrollable emotions and deeply personal motivations, for which he realizes haphazard victory after victory.

All that having been said, I found the movie watchable primarily because of O’Brien’s and Keaton’s performances.  In his first truly adult role, O'Brien is very watchable, and is even believable at times, but still not TOTALLY believable as a guy who can whup an entire room of trained killers.  But hey, Matt Damon got better as Bourne went along, and O'Brien has the same potential.  Awesome right off the bat is Keaton, of course, going full-on Nicolas Cage-style bonkers as Hurley, who puts Rapp through Hell, takes torture like a man on vacation, and isn't afraid to take a literal bite out of terrorism.  Keaton is having way too much fun for the oh-so serious American Assassin, but his over-the-top portrayal is a welcome breath of fresh air into this stale script.

I can’t tell you American Assassin is a good film, but I won’t tell you it’s an awful one, either.  As the ending credits rolled, I told myself that I found it “okay.”  It could certainly have been made better with more time and more money, but ain’t that true of most movies? The excellent writer/ director Ed Zwick left this project early on in development, and I wonder how much better if would’ve been if he’d stayed on.  The film manages to rise above its modest $33 million budget for the most part, but the lack of true tentpole-feature funding starts to show about the time third act begins, as the necessary computer-generated imagery to depict what we’re shown during the climax is very, very below par.  

American Assassin has a title befitting of a movie made in the 1990s. Visualize it with an older cast - Steven Seagal starring as the guy taking on some of the worst the world has to offer.  Jon Voight as the CIA director. Ted Levine as the older recruit gone rogue. American Assassin is essentially a 1990s action movie, but devoid of the adrenaline and overall fun factor some of those films carried. Casting the oh-so-young O’Brien in so “serious” a role is meant to accurately portray the character as just-starting-out, and the sequels of which Lionsgate Studios dreams would show him aging and progressing through his career.  Logical thinking, in my opinion - I also hope they find better screenwriters for those sequels, too.