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.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Missing Element Returns in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

Spider-Man is as important a character to the Marvel (comic-book) Universe as Superman and Batman are to the "Distinguished Competition."  It’s almost been a Lack-of-the-Room’s-Elephant situation that Marvel Studios has cranked out all these films over the last decade, forming a moving-pictures comic book series, and Spider-Man WASN’T a part of it (yeah, I know the deal about him and the X-Men - don’t lecture me). Whatever failure Sony may have imagined their last two Spider-Man movie attempts to be, the positive of them not making more than a billion and a half dollars off of them was that it led Sony to team up with Marvel Studios to produce new Spider-Man movies for them and allow Marvel to include them in their Cinematic continuity.  Everybody’s happy now… right…?

Look, Spider-Man: Homecoming is pretty darn good.  Let me get that on the page at the outset.  I really enjoyed it… for the most part… and I think the overwhelming majority of fans of the modern comic-book movie genre will lap it up and beg for more just like it.  I have a quibble or three, but I openly acknowledge those quibbles most likely won’t affect ninety percent of the audience that will see it, and I DO recommend you see it.  Allow me to cover the Good before I get to the very tiny amount of Bad.

Advancing to a future landscape while turning back our hero’s biological clock, Spider-Man: Homecoming counts as a clean slate for Peter Parker’s web-slinger. Now nestled into the established Marvel Cinematic Universe after an outstanding debut in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland is a true teenaged Spider-Man, one that was never successfully conveyed by two previous franchises and their over-aged actors.  Aiming to please and bursting with youthful energy at every turn, director Jon Watts succeeds at making a movie that serves as a brand-new jumping-off point for a character that badly needed course-correction.  To give credit to the SIX (yeah, count 'em!) credited screenwriters on this movie, the oodles of rather convoluted plot detail are relatively clear, even if you’re not super-paying-attention.

The brightest quality of Spider-Man: Homecoming is certainly the lead actor. Tom Holland’s likeability in Captain America: Civil War wasn’t a fluke, and he has ample opportunity to continue to prove himself here.  He’s a fantastic young talent with excellent comic timing, and his Peter Parker is an incredibly well-written showcase for that.  He eases into the levity, the emotional heft and general fanboy excitement that comes with Tony Stark becoming his mentor.  Peter is a fully-realized character and is infinitely watchable.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr. is here as Tony Stark, and even Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan is here, anchoring the story in the Marvel Universe, but there are new faces, too.  Notably, Michael Keaton excelling as a formidable and indignant nemesis that fits this film’s urban confines and plays off the adult vs. kid dynamic.  For goodness sake, it’s Michael "Batman/Beetlejuice" Keaton!  After a lengthy cold streak of embarrassingly one-dimensional rage villains (until Kurt Russell’s Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), Marvel has now put forth two vivid antagonists with edge and complexity in a row.  Credit goes to the filmmakers for casting solid actors like Keaton and Holland, and more importantly, improving their material.   

However, Marissa Tomei as Peter’s Aunt May feels almost extraneous.  The relationship between Peter and May is a lot of fun to watch, and there are some entertaining moments between them, but she largely seems to be there just because Peter needs someone from whom to hide his identity.  She also seems to exist so that people can comment on how attractive she is.  This character definitely needed work.

Tidbits of Spidey’s comic history pepper the landscape of the movie, possibly serving as “Fan Service,” something of which I’m rarely a fan, but I found them to be suitable here, and they inject energy and flair to every corner of the film.  The emotive Steve Ditko-inspired eyes on Spider-Man’s mask are used to great effect (sorry, Deadpool, Spidey came before you and does it better).  Elder viewers (yes, like me) with an ear for classic cartoons will be overjoyed by the opening measures of Michael Giacchino’s robust orchestral take on Spidey’s cartoon theme replacing the Marvel Studios “fanfare” (at least for this picture - we’ll see if future Spidey movies retain this distinction).  There are others, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.

Now for the Bad… well, what little of it there is.  I’ve been reading Spider-Man comics on-and-off for forty years, and watching movies featuring the character for getting on twenty (...and keep the “Man-Child” wisecracks to yourself for now).  This version of Peter Parker is less cocky than the prior incarnations of recent years.  He is also rather whiny a lot of the time.  The Peter Parker I grew up with was certainly socially awkward in his high-school years, but he didn’t hunch over like a weasel whenever he had to get out of a social situation to go fight crime.  While Holland hunches over with sincerity and skill, I have to admit I am not enthralled by this variation on the teen superhero’s alter-ego.  Peter Parker as a nerd, I can roll with; Peter Parker as a dork, not so much.

Peter Parker was also special to me because he did it all himself - he made his own costume, he made his own equipment, he made his own excuses.  His now depending on Tony Stark for all of his toys and alibis was a bit hard for me to swallow.  I understand this is a new version of the character, aimed at a generation of which I’m not a part.  Fine.  I’ll get over it, but it’ll take some time.  We who believe in Rugged Individualism seem to be a dying breed in our “progressive” society, anyway.

The film also somewhat falls just a smidge flat in the action department.  None of the action set-pieces are especially bad, but they also don’t stand out as particularly memorable.  A sequence involving the Staten Island Ferry should be a definite standout, but even that is missing something.  This character has immense scope for impressive action sequences on which this film doesn’t quite deliver, but it is good that the stakes are scaled down appropriately for the character with the struggle being a far more personal one than we’re used to in the summer world-threatening blockbusters of recent years.

I understand my impressions here are probably going to be out of step with those of the masses of people who are going to attend this movie and have a good time with it.  This is a picture designed to provide bright, vivid thrills and breezy bits of amusement.  As someone who’s kind of wired to notice such things, I might say “This movie really wastes the talents of Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr,” whereas a less-concerned person will see these performers and say, “Oh, yeah, those guys are funny.”  Marvel movies are not concerned with altering your world-view or broadening your appreciation of the filmmaking process. They have done as they always do, produce a slightly better-than-average example of the genre, and it is totally worth seeing as such.  Being exposed to Spider-Man for a decade or two less than I happen to have been may help your enjoyment of it, though.

Monday, July 3, 2017

"Baby Driver" is what Fast, Furious fun REALLY looks like!

Who doesn’t love a good car-chase movie?  Those Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson flicks sure do seem to make a lot of money, but we could debate about whether those are actually car “chase” movies or car “wrecked” movies.  Anyway, there are a number of cinemaphiles who preach the gospel of such flicks as Bullitt, To Live and Die in L.A. and (in a way) the Mad Max movies.  I start this piece with mention of the style of those films, but I am already wondering if I’m going down the wrong path, as Edgar Wright’s latest, Baby Driver, is something altogether similar, yet wonderously unique among them.

Our driver is Baby (Ansel Elgort), an orphaned, insular kid who walks to his own beat, orchestrated by the buds in his ears, belting out one of hundreds of playlists that help to subdue the tinnitus he has suffered since a childhood tragedy, but more appealingly to Kevin Spacey’s Doc, the head of a bank-busting crime syndicate, it makes him the best getaway driver in the business.  He’s so good that he’s the only constant member of crew that rotates it’s criminals between characters such as Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Bats (Jamie Foxx), among others.  Baby owes Doc a large debt, and now that it’s almost paid off, he wants nothing more than to be done with a life of crime, and to just drive off into the sunset with Deborah (Lily James), the good-hearted waitress who sings her way into his life ("Baby - your name’s “Baby?” You get all of the good songs," she says to him during one of their breezy encounters).

So what makes this movie any different from the 70s influences (The Driver and Vanishing Point) that it wears on its sleeves as Go-Faster stripes?  Well, aside from swapping the usual concrete jungles of Los Angeles or New York for the refreshing setting of Atlanta, Georgia, this movie is also kinda-sorta a musical.  The opening sequence, a rip-roaring, white-knuckle chase set to "Bellbottoms" by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, shows masterful editing and spatial choreography. It also shows that Wright has his own ideas about what makes a good car chase - speed, sound, fury and locale, but not necessarily the smash-'em-up approach where a dozen cop cars have flipped over before the first left turn.

Then the opening title sequence immediately follows, and we begin to get the feel for the rhythm changes Wright will use throughout - a one-take tracking shot which follows Elgort as he picks up coffee, swings on lampposts, shadow-mimics graffiti, and awkwardly mimes to lyrics in the same way that we all do once submerged in our own in-ear soundtrack to our lives. All of the musical cues and ticks are so perfectly aligned to the on-screen action that the whole thing feels organic, part of one fluid machine.

The soundtrack is immense, sure to influence your life in the same way that it does Baby’s, with The Commodores “Easy (Like Sunday Morning)” a recurring motif that accompanies joy, revelation, and sadness. There’s also the lesser-known Queen track “Brighton Rock,” and the brilliance of Young MC’s “Know How.”  These are just three from a litany of carefully-selected choices, from a director who wants his film to be informed by the same music that pieces together the fabric of Baby’s emotional arc. It’s an audio/visual jigsaw puzzle that pieces together almost perfectly.

It’s only when the brilliance of scenes such as a laundromat headphone waltz between James and Elgort, or the wonderfully-played exchanges with his deaf foster-father, give way to more straightforward action mechanics that the movie slows, but it never stalls.  These speed-up/slow-downs in the movie’s pace also feel musical, a cadence of storytelling to match the feel of the soundtrack.  Lines of dialogue are layered upon the rhythm of the action,and gunfire matches drumbeats in such a way that by then, you’re so attuned to the DNA of Wright’s film that you almost don’t notice them. Like all of the best albums, re-watches/listens will be a must.

The cast are uniformly great.  Elgort was in line to play the young Han Solo, but here he has the chance to shoot first with a role that sets the bar for cool, as well as ensuring Baby has a vulnerable awkwardness, making his fate worth rooting for. Lily James compliments him perfectly in the hip-to-be-cool stakes, with whip sharp quips and Tarantino-style wordplay. Any worries that she’s simply on-board to be rescued by Baby go out the window by the time the satisfying coda plays out. Jamie Foxx plays the intimidation card to perfection, Kevin Spacey brings his Swimming-with-Sharks persona to the heist table, revelling in the chance to chew on Wright’s dialogue, and Jon Hamm gets an unpredictable arc, which doesn’t entirely work, but as always, he’s very watchable.

I thought a couple of characters began to behave out-of-character in the film’s climax, but by that time, the movie had generated so much goodwill with me that I was willing to forgive these imperfections.  If Edgar Wright leaving the Ant-Man movie three years ago is the reason this movie got made, then I am definitely glad he and Marvel parted ways.  Baby Driver is a pulse-pounding thriller, a film-noir, a heist movie, and also, of course, a musical, a love story, and a tale of tragedy buried underneath.  It belongs in a discussion alongside those great heist/chase movies mentioned above, but it is so original that it will never be mistaken for any of them.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Tom Cruise meets "The Mummy," and disappointment ensues...

Marvel’s doing it.  Warner Bros. is doing it. Fox is doing it.  Sony tried to do it (and blew it, finally surrendering and begging Marvel for help).  Now Universal hops on the “shared universe” bandwagon.  Well, hops AGAIN would be more correct, as this newest iteration of The Mummy is the studio’s THIRD attempt at starting a film series focusing on their catalog of famous monsters, after neither 2010’s The Wolfman or 2014’s Dracula Untold made enough noise to warrant continuing along those lines.  Universal calls it the “Dark Universe,” and it sorta gets me thinking - I’ll bet the filmmakers behind the 1930s’ Frankenstein and Dracula movies weren’t thinking ahead to House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula when they created those classics, but that’s the reality of big-ticket genre filmmaking today.

Instead, eighty years after those masterpieces of pulp, we get CGI ghoulies roaming through a barely-there plot “driven” by a paper-thin protagonist and repeatedly undercut by smart-ass attempts at humor.  At least, like many another underachieving megapicture, The Mummy gives good prologue, setting up its ancient Egyptian villainess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) as a woman scorned who hath plenty of hellish fury.   Unfortunately, after her impressive introduction, we jump ahead to present-day Iraq, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a U.S. soldier who’s really a soldier of fortune, leads his buddy Lt. Vail (Jake Johnson) into a village occupied by local insurgents that Nick also believes holds a great archaeological treasure he can sell to the highest bidder.

Nick doesn’t take much seriously, but he’s not so much roguish as a one-dimensional wiseguy, always ready with a quip to undermine any dramatic or horrific moment, and there’s not much else to him.  Another character describes him, quite correctly, as “utterly without a soul.”  Thus, there’s no solid center to the action that ensues when Ahmanet’s sarcophagus is unearthed and winds up in England after the plane transporting it crashes (in the most effective action scene).  Ahmanet resurrects looking much the worse for wear and goes about sucking the life energy out of assorted hapless victims while pursuing Nick, whom she has targeted as the host of the Egyptian chaos god Set.  Poor beleaguered Nick is also occasionally visited by the jokey spectre of the now-deceased Lt. Vail, and eventually captured by the militaristic followers of one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).
Perhaps Nick is so underdeveloped because Dr. Jekyll is the true star of The Mummy, in terms of Dark Universe’s ongoing series development.  He presides over Prodigium, a secret society devoted to the ferreting out of evil, and already has an expansive collection of trophies - vampire skulls, a Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon hand and what appears to be the book from the Stephen Sommers version of The Mummy.  That film similarly buried any horrific potential under digital effects and slaphappiness, but the effect is especially disappointing here because this version of The Mummy keeps edging toward being scary and then retreating, as if fearful of challenging either the audience or the PG-13 rating.  Even a scene that should have been a surefire chill-maker - mummy minions rising from underwater tombs - blunted.  Director Alex Kurtzman keeps the film moving on a superficial level, but the action lacks variety and surprise.
That also goes, unfortunately, for the Mummy herself.  In walking-withered form, we’ve seen her twitchy CG-type many times before, and though Boutella gives a fine performance of what she’s given to do - conveying a palpable sense of vengeful passion - when Ahmanet’s true face is restored, this Mummy lacks what gave the ’30s classics their true heft: a sense of sympathy for their monsters.  Moreover, Dr. Jekyll’s backstory has been reconceived in a manner that robs the character of his tragic dimensions.  It all leads to a climax that attempts to pay off emotional connections that just aren’t there (Jenny Halsey, a rival treasure hunter who becomes Nick’s romantic interest and is played by Annabelle Wallis, is as much a cipher as he is), and concludes with a final scene that has the feel of something tacked on as a result of negative test scores.

Yes, it’s evident Tom Cruise is giving one hundred percent of himself in his role, and I will give credit where it’s due by saying that he always does.  His performance is probably the best thing about The Mummy.  However, he’s not the monster, and in Monster Movies, the monster had better be the star of the show, and this one ain’t… and that’s the overall problem with The Mummy - its makers have surrendered any possibility of a distinctive product with its own personality or identity in pursuit of the almighty “four quadrants.”  When Aesop wrote his fable of the miller, his son and their donkey, he knew that when you try to please everybody, you wind up pleasing nobody and can lose your ass in the process.  Why don’t these studios, in trying so desperately to created “shared universe” film franchises, understand this?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

LucasFilm fires co-directors of the "Han Solo" film

Hey, folks. A quick word here about last night's news about the upcoming Han Solo movie losing its directors AFTER SIX MONTHS OF PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY!!! Phil Lord and Chris Miller have left the movie, citing that age-old phrase, "creative differences," and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy has issued a statement saying it had "become apparent" that she and the directors had "a different vision" for what the movie should be.

Look, movies lose directors in pre-production quite often, so that wouldn't be that big of a deal, and it even sometimes happens after a week or two of shooting, but SIX MONTHS into the process??? What the Hell were LucasFilm and Lord & Miller talking about during the months and months of pre-production??? If a group of people throwing 200 million dollars around to make a movie haven't had effective enough communication before things get this far along to realize they're not all on the same page... Geez!!

Personally, I never particularly wanted a Han Solo "solo" film, but if we have to have one, I damn-sight want it to be a good one. The events of the last 24 hours, however, are nothing short of a complete, unmitigated disaster. Movies don't get six months into shooting, then take on a new director and just keep on chugging along. Whoever the new director may be will have to shut things down for a time to review what has been shot and decide what different (if anything) he wants to do, and then may decide to just start over from scratch. I'll be SHOCKED if this movie, whatever it turns out to be, still makes its May 25th release date next year.

Star Wars fanatic that I am, I'm burning all sorts of incense in the hope that miracles will happen and this Hindenburg-ish disaster somehow all works out in the end, but I am most definitely bracing myself for the biggest epic fail in Star Wars movie history (and yes, that includes the "Clone Wars" animated theatrical film...).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The DC Movie Universe course-corrects with "Wonder Woman"

There are large segments of the movie-going public who are hyper-excited about a superhero movie being centered on a female character, and that one has actually been directed by a female, and how this is oh-so long overdue and oh-so important in the annals of human history… blah, blah, blah...   All of that may or may not be true, but I don’t really give a fig about any of it.  Male, female, dog, cat, horse… who/whatever makes up a movie is irrelevant to me, as long as it’s good, and this one definitely is.  Wonder Woman is an excellent example of the “superhero” film genre, and I will explain why this is so, if you are kind enough to read on.

The story borrows aspects of Wonder Woman’s rich comic history while relying heavy on modern interpretations such as the character’s much-ballyhooed reboot by writer/artist George Perez in the 1980s.  After a short prelude, we’re introduced to a young Diana and her home of Themyscira.  In an island paradise inhabited only by the Amazons, Diana is raised by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and trained by the Amazon General Antiope (Robin Wright, in a great performance considering her limited screen time).  Although it lacks a Loki, I felt we learned far more about Themyscira than we did about Asgard in the first Thor film, and the setting is put to good use to explore who Diana is and where she comes from before sending her out into the world.

Years later, with Diana grown into adulthood (now played by Gal Gadot) and starting to fully come into her powers, the Amazons’ solitude is intruded upon by an American spy named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and pursuing German soldiers who accidentally come across the island hidden from the world by the gods.  Believing the god of war Ares to be behind this “war to end all wars,” Diana chooses to leave her home and journey into man’s world to put an end to the villain’s schemes by re-assuming the Amazons true purpose in helping man reach his full potential and strive above the pettiness and violence caused by Ares’ influence.  Whew!  Simple, right…?

Credit goes to director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg for taking the best aspects of Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor and merging them into a film that might just be a tad better than either of those two.  Jenkins creates a lush, visual representation of a place steeped in Greek mythology, and balances that with History Channel-realistic depictions of the horror of the First World War, tossing some nice fish-out-of-water humor along the way.

What Wonder Woman gets so very right is its choice of stars and, for the first time in this DC Movie Universe since Man of Steel, a willingness to give the central character a bit of heart.  While fan reaction to the casting of Gadot was mixed, the choice has turned out to be a savvy one.  No, she’s not going to challenge Meryl Streep anytime soon, but she does what is asked of her in this role very, very well.  There is a moment in which Diana, lost in the midst of a war she doesn’t really understand, but knowing that the fighting is harming innocents all around, races across no man’s land and, with the help of a ragtag group, turns the tide of the stalemate.  It’s here, in Diana’s humanity, and in her need to put herself between others and danger, that the film so successfully sells us on the character, and I found Gadot’s eyes and her body language essential in doing so.

Pine and Gadot’s chemistry is wonderful, as each of them have moments of strength, wit and vulnerability with the other, without ever having one character dominate the relationship.  The interplay between all the characters is so entertaining that you shouldn’t find yourself waiting for the next mandatory action set-piece.  Even Trevor’s band of mercenary misfits, while obviously the sort of characters who merely serve as some screenplay motivation-providers, are played by actors (Saïd Taghmaoui, Eugene Brave Rock, and Ewen Bremner) who each manage to imbue their characters with enough to make us actually like them a bit.

I also found the choice to put the character in World War I to be brilliant, in that it distances this story from the other DC movies, allowing it to be told totally on its own, without any reference to the rest of DC’s “cinematic universe.”  That being said, I do find it a bit curious that this character has now been in one-and-a-third movies and the phrase “Wonder Woman” has yet to be uttered by anyone.  I wonder if the upcoming Justice League film will finally allow someone to speak that name.

While acclaim for Wonder Woman seems to be widespread, there are some poor, jaded souls out there who believe it necessary to find fault with the movie’s final act including a major action set-piece battle, full of explosions and destruction on a grand scale.  To complain seeing characters bash Hell out of each other amidst pyrotechnics and massive-scale property damage in a superhero movie is akin to complaining that all love stories inevitably result in two people kissing.  Dogs bark, cats meow and superheroes have landscape-destroying fights - it’s what they do, people.

Wonder Woman is a visually-lush, entertaining summer movie that is loads of fun. It injects a breath of fresh(er) air into the DC cinematic universe and provides some promise for the upcoming movies DC/Warner Bros. has in store. If you are growing tired of seeing costumed characters destroying each other and landscapes, however, then take heart, because Woody Allen is still making movies you might like.