Sunday, July 8, 2018

"Ant-Man and the Wasp" Stands Just Tall Enough


When the original Ant-Man debuted three years ago, many believed Marvel Studios must have been running out of worthy material if this character was the best they could come up with after the dead-seriousness of Avengers: Age of Ultron.  It turned out the hokey-jokey, techno-babble, pseudo-heist film was just the palate cleanser the audience of Marvel’s films needed, getting us all more grounded in our expectations so things could build back up over the course of several more films to the awesomeness and heartbreak of Avengers: Infinity War.  Not to mention it was just dang fun, too. Well, here they go again. Ant-Man and the Wasp takes the same place in a Marvel release schedule its predecessor did, serves much the same purpose as its predecessor did, and delivers results just as impressively.

Paul Rudd’s style and personality are used so perfectly in this role that it’s become one of those instances where you can’t imagine anyone else doing it.  His Scott Lang may be a superhero, but everything he does right is so heavily qualified — mostly because he never manages to save the day without alienating his friends and loved ones — that his sense of self-worth is constantly reduced to human scale.  His character-defining shortcomings are on display throughout the new film every time he tries to puff out his chest. You know, he helped Captain America that one time, but only after he stole a super-suit from his mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, who is still the master of convincing an audience that he’s suppressing an angry outburst).  Yeah, he saved the world in Captain America: Civil War… or helped to, anyway, but without consulting his training (and romantic) partner Hope van Dyne (played with an air of self-confidence by Evangeline Lilly that in itself almost seems like a superpower). Sure, he's behaving now and starting his own security business in San Francisco, but he’s still under heavily-monitored house arrest.  Lang is such a loveable loser because he’s the relatable, well-meaning small fry who tries, and often fails, to live up to expectations.

Director Peyton Reed did such a wonderful job with the first film that it was a no-brainer for him to helm the sequel, and among the many things he did right with both movies is how we see the consequences of our hero’s actions on his everyday life.  Reed and his (FIVE) screenwriters craft a story of how all of these characters overcome their ego-driven tendencies long enough to work together as a raggedy team. Supporting characters — like smug weapons dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), mysterious super-villain Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), clueless FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), and Pym's estranged former colleague Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) — frequently throw Lang and Pym off their best-laid plans, particularly their shared goal of securing the equipment that Pym needs to rescue his long-missing wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the trippy, sub-atomic (and very dangerous) Quantum Realm.

But the tangent-filled nature of Lang's story is the most charming aspect of both Ant-Man films.  Lang's narrative is a revolving door of well-meaning outsiders — his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her amiable wet blanket husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), along with Lang’s eager-to-please daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) — and neurotic colleagues, like Lang’s "X-Con" security crew team of Kurt (David Dastmalchian), Dave (T.I.), and Luis (Michael Peña, again stealing every scene he's in).  Many of these characters are also struggling to suppress their own habitual catastrophizing: if Ghost doesn’t steal and fire up Pym’s equipment now, she will die; if Pym doesn’t get Lang’s help in recovering his equipment, his wife will vanish; and if Lang doesn’t get back to his house before the FBI returns to check up on him, his new post-“Ant-Man” life is over.

Thankfully, Reed capably (though not always gracefully) juggles these various plot points.  Speaking of personality: the first half of Ant-Man and the Wasp — the part that’s most reliant on plot-pushing expository dialogue — definitely feels like it was cobbled together by a creative committee that includes the five credited writers and Heaven-only-knows how many uncredited ones.  This minor shortcoming is why I spent much of this review praising the film’s characters and ideas, but not its brick-and-mortar storytelling. Like many films produced by Marvel Studios, this one sometimes feels “Paint-Superhero-Movie-by-Numbers,” marred by uninspired cinematography (by no less than Dante Spinotti, who has done stunning work on Michael Mann’s films over the years), and over-edited set pieces… but only sometimes.

Ant-Man and the Wasp really takes off once it stops setting up the plot and starts showing how the better story ideas lead into dynamic car chases, fight scenes, and comedic routines (I especially love the bit where Lang, after being knocked out and tied up, asks his kidnapper to help him video-chat with Cassie).  For most of two hours, Peyton Reed and his colleagues take super-fans on a long, strange trip with some of the most sympathetic cinematic crime-fighters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taken in its entirety, Ant-Man and the Wasp may not be the best of anything, but like it’s perpetually challenged hero, it’s plenty good enough at what we want it to be.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sometimes Goin' "Solo" is The Most Fun You Can Have


One of the many questions that has been asked by those who are not tithe-giving members of the Church of Lucasfilm over the last year or two (and quite loudly, by some) about this film is “Do we really NEED a Han Solo stand-alone movie?”  Well, the honest answer to that is No, but it’s also an honest answer to the question “Do we really ever need ANY movie?” We didn’t know we NEEDED Star Wars in the first place until His Lucas-ness gave it to us. Lots of things in life that give us joy are things we never sought in the first place, but we couldn’t imagine life without them once fate dropped them in our laps.  

So regardless of any question of "need," we now have it - Solo: A Star Wars Story.  Fired directors, Oscar-winner replacement director, that dragon-lady chick from “Game of Thrones,” an actor who doesn’t look like Harrison Ford, no Jedi Knights, no lightsabers, no Darth Vader… Geez, how in the hell can this possibly work???  Lemme, tell ya, folks - it DOES work in being exactly what it needs to be. You may wish it were something more, but if that's the case, then it's on you, not this movie.

Ron Howard, the first Oscar-winning director to helm a Star Wars film, has made a movie that meets the first requirement of any summer blockbuster-with-popcorn flick - it’s FUN.  Does it answer any great mysteries about the character of Han Solo? Well, no, but since there was never much “mystery” to the character, anyway, who cares? Yes, we knew the generalities about a lot of these events, but screenwriters Lawrence and Jon Kasdan have crafted a tale that shows us the nitty-gritty of how he entered the criminal underworld of that far-far-away galaxy, how he met the other characters we associate with him, and how he came to own that funny-looking spaceship.  Of course, we know Lawrence Kasdan as the guy who wrote Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, so if he says his is how Han’s life went down, then by Golly, I’ll take his word for it.

Whatever its shortcomings may be (and we’ll get to those), this film does the one thing lots of fans have been clamoring about for some time now - it gets around to showing us that there’s more going on in the galaxy than just the damn Death Star being built/rebuilt.  Ron Howard shows us lots of new characters that flesh out our knowledge of the Star Wars universe, some only in passing, and I like the director’s choices in how he chose which to bring to the forefront and which to leave as window-dressing. We see Han enlisting in the Navy to escape Corellia, only to be kicked out and sent down to the infantry.  He deserts and falls in with a gang of thieves led by Woody Harrelson’s Tobias Beckett, who spends lots of time stressing how important it is that Han not trust anyone. Han also meets Chewbacca (of course), meets Lando (played by a scene-stealing Donald Glover) and begins his life as (as he puts it) an “outlaw.” Speeder chases and train robberies and bar fights abound, and no, I’m not getting it confused with some generic Western.

Okay, I can hear many of you saying it - Alden Ehrenreich doesn’t look exactly like Harrison Ford.  Again, so what? Ehrenreich does a fine job of conveying the fake-it-til-you-make-it swagger we have come to know and love from the character of Han Solo, and does it with the slightly larger quantity of boyish charm this particular story requires.  He’s a fine actor and does a great job with portraying this character at this stage in his life, something the near 80-year old Ford couldn’t possibly do (well, not without some of that Michael Douglas/Ant-Man magic, anyway). The entire cast is terrific, and that includes Emilia Clarke, who gives what I think is her best non-"Game of Thrones" performance yet as Han’s boyhood love, Qi’ra.

My only true complaint about the film is Bradford Young’s cinematography.  If my experience had only happened in one theater, I’d write off the problem to minimum-wage theater workers not taking more pride in their work, but I’ve seen the film twice, in two different theaters, and both showings were entirely too dark.  Footage I’ve seen in the promotional materials on television seem much brighter, however, so I’m not sure what’s going in in Lucasfilm’s color-correction process or what Disney’s marketing team is doing to brighten things up. Maybe the home video print(s) will be better, but we’ll have to wait a few months to see.  

Look, if you love Star Wars (as I do), you’ll be more inclined to truly love Solo.  As with any beloved property, there are those out there who will take pot-shots at it merely because “it ain’t what it used to be” (or some other similar snide assessment), but those people are very sad and empty and have no joy in their souls, and make themselves feel better by tearing down what brings happiness to others.  Of course, I’m not a psychotherapist, and I don’t even play one on TV, so my diagnosis may not be entirely accurate, but you get my drift. I personally really, really liked it, but I won’t go so far as to say I loved it. It was a well-made, fun adventure story, one that fits into the Star Wars mythos very well, and I don’t really feel that I should ask more of it that that.

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...