Monday, November 23, 2015

Jessica Jones (2015)

It took me four days to get through the Netflix-exclusive Daredevil back in April, but this weekend’s release of Jessica Jones only lasted me two days. Not that Marvel has delivered fewer than 13 episodes this time around – same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, true believers. It’s just that I found Jessica Jones more engaging, more accomplished, and more addicting than the already first-rate Daredevil. As wonderful as Marvel’s first Netflix series was, Jessica Jones is the new crown jewel in Marvel’s television stable.

Krysten Ritter stars as the eponymous private investigator, hard-talking and even harder-drinking. Using her remarkable super-strength only when she has to, Jessica picks up the case of a missing athlete (Erin Moriarty), only to discover that the case is linked to an old enemy (David Tennant), whose fixation on Jessica makes him a dangerous foe. Against her instinct to isolate herself, Jessica draws on the help of her old friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and new flame Luke Cage (Mike Colter), while her lawyer/employer Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) wrestles with an impending divorce.

I’ll say right off the bat that I think the major reason I rank Jessica Jones more highly than Daredevil is freshness. Not that Daredevil was stale, by any measure – and I should also clarify that my praise of Jessica Jones isn’t at all to denigrate Daredevil; rather, it’s a mark of how much higher Jessica Jones sets the bar, due largely to the character’s novelty. We all had a sense of how Daredevil was going to play out, tracing the simultaneous rise of Hell’s Kitchen’s greatest hero and villain, culminating with... well, you know how these kinds of stories play out.

A few hours into Jessica Jones, I realized that I couldn’t say the same for this show. I know how I wanted it to end, certainly, but I couldn’t guarantee that we’d get the ending we wanted. Indeed, there are a number of twists and turns in the show that I honestly didn’t see coming, which makes for a comparably more enjoyable show in terms of edge-of-the-seat viewing. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but the narrative winds around story beats that are really only possible when a character isn’t caught up in 50 years of iconic stories (because let’s face it, Daredevil has had many long-running arcs to which any adaptation must pay homage).

At the center of it all, you have two extraordinarily dynamic performances from Ritter and Tennant, who get to play off each other much more than Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio, who were kept apart for much of Daredevil. Ritter gives Jessica Jones the hard edge the character needs, distinguishing her from other “strong female protagonists” by emphasizing the brokenness under the surface, a tragedy repressed by alcohol, cynicism, and casual sex. Her character crackles, especially in scenes with Tennant, who plays the sadistic sociopath Kilgrave (known to comics fans as the mind-controlling Purple Man). Tennant is getting cascades of praise for his role as the show’s villain, and rightly so – short of Kingpin and maybe Loki, Kilgrave is Marvel’s new best villain because of how intensely and immediately loathsome he is. And yet – there’s a creepy way that Tennant pitches for the audience’s sympathy, even in light of his casual and frankly terrifying violence; there’s something of Kingpin’s childish tantrums in Kilgrave, but in a way that’s more horrifying for how little he seems to care.

The supporting cast are equally strong, with only Colter’s Luke Cage managing to wrestle the show away from its two leads – in large part, that’s due to Luke being next in line for his own Marvel show, but he also has a unique chemistry with Jessica that makes me think neither standalone show will be getting a second season; rather, I’d put money on a Jones/Cage team-up (following, I’d wager, the comics couple’s quirky courtship). There are winks and nods to elsewhere in the Marvel continuity; the films are kept at arm’s length, but we have allusions to Hellcat, Nuke, Iron Fist, and maybe even Spider-Woman and Gladiator (because, to be fair, how many Melvins are running around Hell’s Kitchen?). But as a piece, Jessica Jones doesn’t feel too tied into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I think there’s room in the MCU for these standalone stories, which can easily be woven into the larger tapestry later. With Jessica Jones, Ritter is poised to be the next big star of the MCU, and it’s easy to imagine an Avenger turning to her to track down someone, or just to lift a car over her head.

Along with feeling a step away from the MCU proper, there is the matter of tone to consider – by which I mean that Jessica Jones is the uneasiest entry in the ten years of Marvel productions, giving me the feeling of physical revulsion more often than ever. At one point, I literally had to stop and shower, and not just because I’d been in my pajamas for hours at a stretch. This show is much more uncomfortable, more unsettling, and more frank than anything else we’ve seen with a Stan Lee cameo (and yes, he’s in there). Kudos to the showrunners for sticking to a vision and a tone which must have rattled the bottom-line-conscious brass.

Jessica Jones is dark, it’s daring, it’s uncomfortable – and it’s bloody brilliant, television most foul as in the best it is. As the best binges induce, I want more.

Jessica Jones is rated TV-MA. As Marvel productions go, it’s the sexiest; although there’s no nudity, there are some pretty intense sex scenes and frank discussions of rape. Language is fairly salty in the S-words range, but the violence is substantially less graphic than in Daredevil. Psychologically, though, it’s much more troubling.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Spectre (2015)

While Skyfall was for a lot of us the fulfilled promise of the Bond update kickstarted by Casino Royale, a kind of “And we’re back” (as Mark Kermode has, as always, so eloquently put it) Spectre is the second half of that sentence, a sort of “...and we’re here to stay.” To be fair Spectre isn’t the triumph that Skyfall was – recall Skyfall made #2 on my definitive ranking of every Bond film ever, though it’s too soon to rank Spectre. But it’s a worthy successor, a fine if occasionally too personal 24th installment.

After receiving an order from the late M, James Bond (Daniel Craig) follows a trail of criminals to the den of a mysterious figure (Christoph Waltz), heretofore presumed to be dead, and his organization known as SPECTRE. An encounter with an old friend leads Bond to Dr. Madeline Swann, who will help Bond and Q (Ben Whishaw) take down SPECTRE, while the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and his aide Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) work against the surveillance project of rising bureaucrat Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott).

I’m going to go so far as to label Skyfall transcendent – breathtakingly beautiful and tightly narrated, with all the action you’d want from a Bond film without the foolish frivolity toward which the franchise is occasionally prone. It’s so good that I daresay Spectre never could have lived up to it, in the way that Thunderball could never have been as good as Goldfinger. Taken on its own merits, though, Spectre is good enough.

Starting with the pre-credits sequence, a staple of any Bond flick, Spectre doesn’t disappoint. In a long-take opening (whose CGI trickery takes away none of the punch of seeing Bond really do his stuff), director Sam Mendes takes us into the heart of a Day of the Dead celebration, cuing up the thematic content of the film with a lovely bit of eye candy in the form of Bond’s effortless heroics. Like Skyfall’s opener, it moves through a number of sub-setpieces rather quickly, lacking only a snide one-liner to cap it all off.

The rest of the film’s action is top-notch: a car chase through Rome, a fistfight on a train, a ski chase in which neither participant is actually skiing, and then two variations on the escape-from-the-compound trope. All of these play very well within the narrative, striking a great balance between the Bourne-inflected realism of the Craig era and the gentle absurdity we’ve seen in older films, but they’re played to delight, not to strain credulity. Indeed, they serve as nice reminders of what film we’re watching; just when the film starts to take itself too seriously, we’re treated to a nice bit of levity, like Bond surviving the collapse of a building by landing on a sofa.

There’s the rumor – an evergreen, really – that Spectre is Craig’s last outing as Bond. Much as we’ve heard that one before, Spectre does feel in a lot of ways like the end of an era. It pays off a lot of narrative threads from the last three films, including the most delightful amplification of the roles of M, Q, and Moneypenny. Largely absent from the early Craig films, this supporting cast gets a great opportunity to shine in their own subplot, from which Bond is largely absent but which manages to be as compelling as his conflict with Waltz’s villain. If it’s Craig’s swan song, I hope Fiennes, Whishaw, and Harris stick around – the MI6 gang are as interesting as they’ve ever been.

On Waltz: he’s every bit the scenery-nibbler we’d want out of a classic Bond villain, a fine successor to Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva. There’s an intriguing way that Waltz unites both the campy classicism of the Connery era with a very contemporary sensibility vis-à-vis surveillance and anonymous terrorism. And if this is the last Craig film, it’s clear that the filmmakers are eager to tie it all up in a way that I don’t actually think was necessary. It doesn’t detract from the film, though it is a little distracting how overt this move is. There’s a beat where those who hadn’t recently seen Casino Royale might be a little dizzied by the reappearance of that film’s Mr. White, and there’s an unconvincing move to tie Skyfall into a larger narrative (when it works just as well, if not better, as a Goldfinger-esque standalone).

There’s what I would say is my biggest critique of Spectre (aside from a disappointing show by the film’s soundtrack, with a forgettable title track by Sam Smith and a score by Thomas Newman, who phones it in a little too much, borrowing heavily from Skyfall both in motifs and, in a few moments, in what sound like actual edits from earlier musical cues): the film tries a little too hard, a little too openly, to unite the previous films together. Maybe it’s just the tenor of the earlier films, where there were loose and insignificant attempts to hold the films together; where the Connery era had SPECTRE as a shadowy bogeyman whom, we assumed, Bond was always already fighting, Spectre attempts to make that unifying thread the stuff of revelation, of narrative twists, but there are ways to do that which don’t show the filmmakers’ hand so baldly. Additionally, we’ve been glad to see Daniel Craig as a more personal James Bond, in that his Bond takes things more personally – mourns the dead more willingly, pursues cases more intensely, and even hooks up with Moneypenny (finally!). He’s been a more personal Bond, but Spectre tries to move that more-personal quality out of the realm of subtext and into the arena of the actual plot, with Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser linked to Bond’s past. While this isn’t a bad move for the franchise (and I suspect the filmmakers have their eye on ways to continue this narrative thread), it comes off as largely unnecessary; the subtext was already there, and excavating it to the surface doesn’t actually do much more for the film.

Here’s the thing, though – it doesn’t take away from Spectre. The move toward the much more personal Bond isn’t hamfisted or sloppy; it’s just not essential for this viewer, but what we have is still quite entertaining. There are a number of frankly breathtaking action beats, fascinating developments in Craig’s Bond, who continues to be the most compelling Bond (even if Sean Connery is still a fan favorite), and moments of pure exuberance that remind you why Bond has endured for more than fifty years and twenty-five films (counting, as we ought, Never Say Never Again). It’s no Skyfall, but then what is?

Spectre is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language.” There is the usual quantity of Bond heroics, including car chases, fist fights, and explosions. One character is facially disfigured in an unpleasant way, and Bond makes out with two separate women (the rest is left to implication). One or two S-words (no, Mr. Connery, not swords) are invoked.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Truth (2015)

True-story films about political journalism fall into two categories: insightful historical documents and shallow propaganda. On that continuum, then, Truth falls somewhere right of center – which it would detest to be labeled, I am sure – by falling closer to political agenda than historic insight.

Cate Blanchett stars as Mary Mapes, the 60 Minutes producer who oversaw the controversial story about George Bush’s alleged abandonment of duty during his 1970s stint with the National Guard. Robert Redford co-leads as Dan Rather, the doomed anchor whose commitment to the story (spoilers for real life?) ends up costing him his job. Truth covers the timeline from the story’s pitch in the summer of 2004 through Bush’s re-election in November.

The problems with the film are severalfold. First, to be pedantic, the title. Titles are important, as we know, and to label a story “Truth” is to take on an immense responsibility, a terrific burden. But in the promotional materials, Mapes herself describes the film as “my truth” – a critical difference from the truth, which the film purports to be. Worse, the film trades a great deal in equivocation and shouting down objections – a fine rhetorical strategy, I suppose, were it not for a monologue in which Blanchett decries that same technique.

A similarly false note is rung in that same monologue when Blanchett’s closing speech – which has all the self-congratulation of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay but less of the snappy prose – sneers at the allegations of conspiracy theorists and those who pander to them. Those of us in the audience ought to recognize what Truth does not – it’s speaking about itself in that moment, because it comes on the heels of a soliloquy by Topher Grace in which he alleges that his employer’s parent company Viacom is colluding against Congress with the Bush cabinet to protect its assets, while the film also spins a web of circumlocution around the origin of the documents in question.

Actually, the political stuff, which the filmmakers foreground, is for my money the least interesting material in Truth. I’d have much rather the film teased out more the way Mapes regards Rather as a kind of surrogate father (a Freudian slip near the film’s conclusion, mercifully, isn’t beaten to death), but the film leaves Mapes and Redford apart for a fair amount of their screen time. It’s likely the exigencies of real life at play, Rather having covered other newsworthy events like a hurricane at the time, but it’s evidence that there is more interesting material in the story than the film allows.

Rhetorically, then, Truth somewhat fails to live up to its own title. As a piece of film, though? It’s a little more successful aesthetically, though it’s far from perfect. It’s director James Vanderbilt’s debut, having cut his teeth on scripts for the Amazing Spider-Man reboots, Zodiac, and White House Down – a mixed bag if ever we saw one. Blanchett is, as ever, solid and enjoyable to watch, and the supporting cast (including Grace, Elisabeth Moss, and Dennis Quaid) does a fine job filling out the script. Disappointingly, Redford never quite convinces the audience that he’s Dan Rather; there are moments when he seems to have nailed Rather’s signature drawl, but otherwise it’s hard not to see Redford playing a version of himself – a complaint I didn’t have, incidentally, with Redford in last year’s much more delightful yet equally political Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In short, I came away from Truth somewhat disappointed by its blatant political stance – a Fox News truck shows up with all the cinematic techniques you’d expect to see accompanying Jack the Ripper’s screen debut – and its attention to more aesthetic matters like its intriguing subplots. But rather than critique the film for what it wasn’t, what I would have preferred it to be, I’ll say that what we got wasn’t the award-season material its producers likely wanted.

Truth is rated R for “language and a brief nude photo.” There are about a dozen F-bombs in the film, as well as a pixelated image from Abu Ghraib.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Top 10 Things I’m Looking Forward to in The Force Awakens

Without much at the box office to review and having caught up on most of my home viewing, I turn to the future. There’s a new Star Wars movie coming out next month – words I never thought I’d say, but they taste sweeter than ice cream. I’m so very excited about a great many things, but here are my “Top 10 Things I’m Looking Forward to in The Force Awakens.”

10. It’s the start of a new trilogy. Lest we forget, there are two more movies coming down the pike, to say nothing of all the “Anthology” films designed to fill in the gaps between the main films. While much has been made of The Force Awakens as a return to that galaxy far, far away, we must also remember that Episode VII is going to establish themes and plotlines for the next trilogy – and perhaps beyond.

9. It’s not George Lucas. And I don’t mean that as a slight to the man; for all the faults of the Prequel Trilogy, I do feel he’s hugged the cactus long enough, and he’s still the man responsible for birthing Star Wars into the universe. What I mean is, up until now we’ve really only seen George Lucas’s Star Wars, with his authorial hand at the narrative till. I’m excited to see what other voices bring to the galaxy.

8. Stellar space dogfights. In a way, I’m more excited about this one than lightsaber fights. We’ve done the lightsaber thing over and over, but Return of the Jedi is still the benchmark for great space combat. In light of the CGI pixelfest opening of Revenge of the Sith, and with the inclusion of an X-Wing pilot as one of our chief new characters, we’re in for some stellar space fighting.

7. Fun new merchandising. Look, if there’s one thing you’ve learned about me on this blog, it’s that I’m a hopeless shill, an easy mark. I’ve been devouring the new canon novels, spending far too much time on the Star Wars Card Trader app, and delighting in bobbling the head of my Kylo Ren Funko figurine. All of this has gone on, many rightly note, with a pretty hefty spoiler embargo from Disney. Just imagine what neat new doodads I’ll be able to put on my shelf once the movie lands.

6. Opening the puzzle box. Speaking of spoilers, let’s talk about the fact that the movie remains almost entirely unspoiled. We know next to nothing save what we’ve glimpsed in well-edited trailers and gorgeous movie posters. Maybe I’m just adept at dodging those murky spoileriffic corners of the Internet, but JJ Abrams has always been known for his puzzle box approach to filmmaking, keeping his cinematic cards as close to his directorial chest as possible. With the long arm of The Mouse at his side, we’re in for a real surprise come December.

5. Meeting new friends. It’s evident that The Force Awakens won’t just be treading familiar ground. We have a trio of new protagonists in Finn, Rey, and Poe Dameron, creepy antagonists in Kylo Ren, Captain Phasma, and General Hux, as well as the instantly lovable BB-8, heretofore unseen figures, and the overall shape of the galaxy in the wake of the fall of the Empire (if indeed it really fell). With no clue how all this fits together, with the tease that some characters are connected to the Original Trilogy in surprising ways, and with Disney positioning many performers as breakout figures, Star Wars ought to introduce us to a few new stars.

4. Seeing old friends. But of course, The Force Awakens isn’t discarding our holy trinity of science fiction. Luke, Han, and Leia are coming back, as are Chewbacca and that dynamic droid duo of C-3PO and R2-D2. Heck, even Admiral Ackbar is confirmed for a return. (Lando can’t be far behind, right!) It’s been thirty years in-canon, and only a little longer for us in the real world. The Force Awakens has a lot of catching up to do.

3. A new John Williams score. This was very nearly my #1 on the list, and I really can’t undersell just how pivotal Williams’s music will be to the success of The Force Awakens. Even if the film is a catastrophe on the level of Attack of the Clones, it’ll make a brilliant silent film with just the score turned up to eleven. He’ll be remixing the familiar tunes, as the trailers indicate, but I’m equally if not more excited to hear how he brings new characters to musical life.

2. Where is Luke Skywalker? Remember that puzzle box I mentioned? Abrams and company have let nothing slip about the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, the only surviving Jedi (well, assuming Ahsoka Tano doesn’t make it out of Rebels). We know Mark Hamill is in the film – how could he not be? – but the trailers haven’t given us more than a momentary glimpse at a cybernetic hand which, to be fair, might not even be his. The mystery of science fiction’s greatest hero, and the implication that his absence might be a major plot point, has me all a-flutter.

1. That childlike sense of wonder. Credit the marketing team for this one, but the #1 reason I’m excited about The Force Awakens is that I feel genuinely excited about it. Something of a tautology, I know, but there’s a difference between this and my excitement for the next superhero movie. With the latter, I have a fairly good idea of what’s coming, and my excitement stems from confidence in the direction of whichever franchise I’m financing with my ticket. With Star Wars, the trailers and promotional materials give me a very different feeling, a reminder of why I fell in love with Star Wars at age eight or so, a promise that everything is going to be different but nothing is going to be too far afield. So far, everything I’ve seen of The Force Awakens has been a wonderful blend of nostalgia, promise, mystery, and wonder. Abrams, known for his Spielbergian sense of awe, is a worthy heir to the franchise, and I have the feeling of coming home to that galaxy far, far away.

Despite my obvious enthusiasm, rest assured I’ll be giving this one a fair shake come December. I haven’t made my mind up in advance, and if it’s absolute dreck I won’t flinch to say so. But I’ve got a very good feeling about this.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015)

It’s no secret around these parts that Guillermo del Toro and I have had something of a parting of the ways when it comes to his most recent films. I’m a staunch admirer of his Hellboy films, and I think Pan’s Labyrinth is about as good as it gets when it comes to stylized magical realism. But Pacific Rim (at the risk of reopening that can of worms) left a bitter taste in my mouth. Fortunately, Crimson Peak is a bit of a return to form for del Toro, even though it suffers through a bumpy opening act or two to get there.

A modern woman in the fin de siècle mode, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) falls for the dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) while finishing her first novel – not a ghost story, but “a story with a ghost in it.” Though her stern banker father (Jim Beaver) disapproves, Sir Thomas courts Edith with everything he’s got. When the two marry and move to Allerdale Hall with Sir Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith discovers that there are skeletons in the Sharpe closet, ghosts in the ancestral home, and a bevy of other gothic tropes imperiling her very life.

It’s probably better to start with the bad news, because the effect Crimson Peak had on me did something very similar, tempering my exuberance for the film’s climax with a middling-at-best first hour. The problem with Crimson Peak is that it isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be a satire of the Gothic or a wholehearted revel through the genre. We can tell that del Toro is extremely well-read in the Gothic; the film carries with it a virtual checklist of tropes. (Moody castle? Check. Uncomfortably close siblings? Check. A murder/inheritance plot? Check.) But there is at the same time an accompanying sense that the performers are playing their parts a little too earnestly, working perceptibly too hard to convince the audience to play along with the fiction.

Take, for example, one of the worst things a film can do – a long and brutally on-the-nose expository monologue. Crimson Peak has such a one, in which Edith’s father chastises Sir Thomas for his effete and privileged upbringing, something that the coarse hands of a true American could never know. Now, this is a fine subtext, and it’s been played often enough that the audience could probably glean it from a well-crafted scene or two. But del Toro, for reasons that escape me, verbalizes these sentiments with painstaking precision, turning a subtle character motivation into a blunt instrument. This is to say nothing of the unsubtle parallels between Edith’s novel and the film we’re watching, both of which take great pains to tell us that “it’s not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it.” Yes, we know, but why does del Toro feel he needs an apologia-cum-apology to enter the genre?

The truth of the matter is that Crimson Peak is at its best when it surrenders wholeheartedly to the Gothic genre and turns into an unapologetic haunted house of horrors. del Toro’s ghosts, grotesquely gory skeletons, are genuinely terrifying, and the jump scares they elicit are first-rate fare for Halloween. What’s more, there’s enough left unspoken, communicated solely by the mood of the film, that Crimson Peak is a fine discussion-prompter once you’ve left the cinema. (And if it’s a dark and chilly night, so much the better!) I am more convinced by Edith’s efforts at detection as she pieces together the myriad mysteries of Allerdale Hall than I am by a comparable effort on the part of her physician (Charlie Hunnam), who extemporizes at length on the Sherlock Holmes books which sit in his office.

Cinema is a medium of showing, not telling, and del Toro proves in the back half of Crimson Peak that he’s a master at it. But it does very much feel like the first hour of Crimson Peak was made by the same man who made Pacific Rim, not Pan’s Labyrinth. Where the former was all sound and pixelated fury, signifying nothing but an orgiastic self-indulgence in digital trickery, the latter served as evidence of a sophisticated and sensitive cinematic eye. Crimson Peak is of two minds about its own identity, but if you can slog through the first half you’ll love the second.

Crimson Peak is rated R for “bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.” The ghosts are skeletal, gruesomely bloody, or both, and there’s a fair amount of other graphic violence in store. There’s a somewhat intense sex scene in which only a man’s rear end is show (the woman keeps on her gown, which is somewhat ridiculous for the number of petticoats it contains). One F-word appears.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Monday at the Movies - October 19, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”

Whiplash (2014) – Look, do you need me to be one more voice in the litany of praise for JK Simmons’s tour de force role as a jazz band instructor who pushes his students to the brink of madness? If so, consider yourself adequately informed; Whiplash features a can’t-miss performance from the man you may only know as the newspaper editor from Spider-Man. Equal parts mesmerizing and terrifying, Simmons’s Terence Fletcher is the stuff nightmares are made of; think the Sgt. Hartman of jazz. In fact, at a brisk 100-some minutes, Whiplash might be the most intense film about jazz ever made, leaving me physically shaken in a way that I honestly can’t recall another film doing. I kid you not; I had lingering jitters for at least fifteen minutes after putting the DVD back in its case. I single out in particular an extended drum solo, which sounds far less compelling on paper than in its execution, to which I credit the frenetic editing and Damien Chazelle’s tight directorial work. The unsung hero of the film is Miles Teller, who plays the drumming prodigy protagonist, who appears noir-style in every scene of the film and who does such a credible job of bringing Andrew Neimann to life that you’ll forget all about Fant4stic (as should we all). And without spoiling too much, I’ll say that Whiplash ends in a place of open-endedness, not on a question of fact but one of meaning, one that is guaranteed to provoke discussion and stick with you for at least a solid weekend. Chazelle has created a think-piece disguised as a jazz film with all the ambience of a David Fincher thriller, and if nothing else you’ll appreciate JK Simmons in a whole new light.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

After something akin to an allergic reaction to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I very nearly gave up on this review series. Equal parts uneven and uninteresting, Order seemed decidedly disorderly – a pun I wish I’d thought up last month. Instead, I forged on; I’ve consumed a lot of lackluster media solely in the name of completionism, but fortunately returning director David Yates seems to have learned his lesson with Half-Blood Prince, which is on the whole much more engaging and unified than its predecessor.

Now in his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes a closer confidante to his headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), who brings Harry along when incoming Potions professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) is hired. Harry soon learns, though, that Slughorn has been hired because he knows valuable information about the dark lord Voldemort. While Harry’s friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) wrestle with their feelings for each other, Harry and Dumbledore pursue the last bit of hidden knowledge needed to defeat Voldemort.

Right off the bat, Yates demonstrates a much stronger command of the visual language of film, establishing in the film’s opening shot the central theme – Dumbledore, having seen firsthand the consequences of keeping Harry in the dark, elects to trust his star pupil. After much of the confusion of Order, wondering what the central throughline was, there’s a pleasant “Aha!” at the beginning of Prince. And indeed, throughout we see Yates communicating silently with his audience, allowing us to glean from the visual that which we need to know. We have very few ponderous monologues or, at the other end of the spectrum, moments of ungraspable speculation; the film tells us what we need to know in a way natural to the medium.

It helps that you have wonderfully expressive yet subtle performances, first by the teenage cast who have really come into their own. Last time I reviewed this film, as a younger man I bemoaned the “angsty teenage romance” that pervades the film. Now that I’m older, wiser, and fresher on the franchise, I see what’s actually happening here is that the actors are (perhaps for the first time) allowed to humanize their characters and give them a few emotions besides stock tropes of “stoic,” “goofy,” and “brainy” (respectively). Furthermore, it’s a treat to see Alan Rickman as Snape and Broadbent’s Slughorn given stretching room for those fine thespians to vivify their characters.

It’s Michael Gambon, surprisingly, who ends up being something of a scene-stealer. Though I’ve never been sold on Gambon as a replacement for the late Richard Harris (I’ve always wondered what Peter O’Toole could have done with the part), he does pretty impressive work with Dumbledore, who’s nowhere near as stern and shouty as he’s been. Instead, we get a pretty close approximation of the Dumbledore from the books, much more contemplative and compassionate, which Gambon layers on as a natural role-reversal from his earlier interpretation of the character. This is the Dumbledore I wish we’d gotten all along, but in light of the way this film ends (I’m being cautiously vague, even though I’m sure this “spoiler” is right up there with Rosebud in terms of a statute of limitations) it’s a much more sobered and thoughtful performance than we might have been led to expect.

The film is overall more focused than the last one, and even though the book split its attention between flashbacks and present-day movement toward the seventh book, the film finds a much more confident identity in its present, giving Harry something very tangible for which to fight while deepening the mythology of the universe. Even the last-minute cliffhanger of sorts, which teases the narrative center of the final film(s), ties into the main theme of friendship and trust (which, actually, links up with the major twist of this film as well). What you have, then, is a much better organized Harry Potter film in which each element is deeply integrated into the main storyline and theme. It is, in short, a much more successful penultimate feature film than I’d presumed possible from Yates. Half-Blood Prince is a full-blood success.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is rated PG for “scary images, some violence, language and mild sensuality.” Spells and their occasionally bloody after-effects, as well as a few creepy creatures and a looming sense of peril at every turn (including one spectacular jump moment near the film's climax), could be objectionable as far as "scary images [and] some violence" are concerned. The snogging in this film ("mild sensuality") isn't much to write home about, though it dominates a lot of the main characters' focus.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Top 10 Return of the Jedi Musical Moments

In the wake of my most recent semimonthly rewatch of the Star Wars trilogy (that’s the Original variety, naturally), and in anticipation of The Force Awakens this December, I present another Top Ten list.  No, not a Top Ten ranking of the films in existence – the correct answer, by the way, is 5, 4, 6, 3, 2, Clone Wars, 1 – but a more musically minded listing.

The task was arduous, though, and I couldn’t bear to throw that many children to the wolves. Rather than rank the ten best tracks from 797 minutes of movies, I’m going to break this down by film. Here we present the second in an ongoing series of lists, “The Top 10 Return of the Jedi Musical Moments!” (Look at it this way, you’re getting more posts – one for each movie!)

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. For source/cue division, I’m using both the 1993 four-disc “Anthology” box set and the 2004 two-disc “Special Edition” reissue editions, so track listings may vary for those playing the home game.

10. “Han Solo Returns”
 We start the list off with a track that would have been higher, if only more of it had been used in the film. Williams composed a divine tuba motif for Jabba the Hutt, though you won’t hear much of it in the film. What was used, though, sets the mood well for the slimy gangster’s slovenly den of miscreants, with a nice reprise of “Han Solo and the Princess” when everyone’s favorite scoundrel is rescued by “someone who loves [him].”

9. “The Emperor Arrives”
 Williams is the master of the musical leitmotif, and in this piece we see is skill at blending the old with the new. In an amazing piece of musical storytelling, he begins with a brassy rendition of the Imperial March, which surrenders – as its on-screen embodiment kneels – to the Emperor’s theme (about which, more later). For an introduction to the Emperor, it’s perfect, telling us that he’s scary in a different way than Vader is, but it doesn’t do as well out of context because of its brevity on the soundtrack releases.

8. “Fight in the Dungeon”
The first action cue of the film is a great example of what Williams can do with a small piece of music not oriented around particular motifs. Instead, he turns in a delightful one-off track to score Luke’s battle with the rancor, conveying the creature’s shambolic motion and the carnivorous peril of the scene. Let’s be honest, the original rancor special effects were a little bit dodgy, but Williams’s music, as ever, carries the day.

7. “Victory Celebration”
 For all the changes from the original 1983 release through the Special Edition and beyond, here’s one I genuinely don’t mind and indeed prefer. The “Yub Nub” track, though viewed with nostalgic glasses, is a little hokey even for Star Wars. Williams’s second try, though, paints a musical landscape as the Special Edition cut shows us a more galaxy-wide approach to the end of the Empire. It’s a more world-music finale, one that crescendos nicely into the End Titles.

6. “Parade of the Ewoks”
 Say what you will about the Ewoks – characters made to sell toys, teddy bears that make the film too juvenile – Williams weaves them into the musical tapestry of the universe perfectly. Recalling also his work on the Indiana Jones films roughly contemporaneously, “Parade” introduces the playfulness of the Ewoks with a melodic versatility that fits equally well in an action cue.

5. “The Emperor’s Death”
 For the climax of the film, Williams throws it all against the wall – the Imperial March, the Emperor’s theme, the Force theme – and at least for those of us who grew up playing X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, this track is indelibly imprinted on our minds. It fits brilliantly with that arresting image of the Emperor’s electrified fingertips and with Darth Vader’s final decision in the battle for his son’s soul – and, ultimately, his own.

4. “Luke and Leia”
 Lest anyone think that Williams phoned it in for the trilogy’s finale, “Luke and Leia” might be considered his last great original composition for the Star Wars universe (until, that is, 1999). It’s a soft melody that reminds me of the high romances of the 1940s, only it’s applied to the tender moment when Luke divulges that he and Leia are siblings. It’s reprised when Leia breaks the same news to Han, and it’s one of the more underrated pieces in the film.

3. “Into the Trap”
 Speaking of underrated, this track often gets overshadowed by Admiral Ackbar’s sloshy “It’s a trap!” Undeservedly so – its recent appearance on Star Wars: Rebels (which, by the way, has been doing a phenomenal job of remixing Williams’s work) speaks to its potency as a piece of space action music, its militant opening foreboding the titular track and paying off the much slower rendition as heard in... you guessed it, #2 on this list.

2. “Main Title/Approaching the Death Star”
 It initially surprised me that I didn’t have a hard-and-fast favorite opening sequence from the six films: I can name my favorite film (Empire), favorite bounty hunter (Boba Fett), favorite lightsaber duel (Luke vs. Vader at Bespin), but I hadn’t given much thought to “opening scene.” Hands down, though, it’s this one, which opens with a majestically confident version of the Imperial March, showing us all the pomp of the Empire at its peak in the austere yet incomplete Death Star II.

1. “The Return of the Jedi”
Also known as “Sail Barge Assault,” there’s no question that this is the strongest piece from Return of the Jedi. I mean, it’s in the title! In all seriousness, though, it’s a rousing action track that emblematizes the best of Star Wars – the hopeful triumph of the forces of good against overwhelming odds, a wonderful warm-up for the last great battle of the Rebel Alliance, but a confident and well-choreographed reunion of old friends amid the most celebratory rendition of the main theme. It’s no coincidence that the trailer for The Force Awakens evoked this moment with its iconic bum.... bum... BUM, which I daresay is to Star Wars what that iconic first chord is to “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite Return of the Jedi musical moment! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss my move into the prequel trilogy!

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Top 10 Empire Strikes Back Musical Moments

In the wake of my most recent semimonthly rewatch of the Star Wars trilogy (that’s the Original variety, naturally), and in anticipation of The Force Awakens this December, I present another Top Ten list.  No, not a Top Ten ranking of the films in existence – the correct answer, by the way, is 5, 4, 6, 3, 2, Clone Wars, 1 – but a more musically minded listing.

The task was arduous, though, and I couldn’t bear to throw that many children to the wolves. Rather than rank the ten best tracks from 797 minutes of movies, I’m going to break this down by film. Here we present the second in an ongoing series of lists, “The Top 10 Empire Strikes Back Musical Moments!” (Look at it this way, you’re getting more posts – one for each movie!)

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. For source/cue division, I’m using both the 1993 four-disc “Anthology” box set and the 2004 two-disc “Special Edition” reissue editions, so track listings may vary for those playing the home game.

10. “The Magic Tree”
 While I’m scratching my head at the name of this track – it’s a cave, not a tree – there’s no denying that it’s a subtly effective piece that communicates the eerie nature of Luke’s Dagobah experience without overplaying it. Williams wisely refrains from deploying “The Imperial March” in this moment, going instead for a creepy synthesizer that nicely complements the mystery and atmosphere conjured by director Irvin Kershner’s ominous cinematic vision.

9. “Lando’s Palace”
 This light and breezy track does so much for the film that I almost think it’s the most underrated piece in the film. You may have been taken in by Billy Dee Williams’s charisma (and really, how could you not?), but the bouncing majesty of this piece as he gives his grand tour of Cloud City lulls you into that false sense of security – just before Williams pulls the musical rug out from under your ears and reveals the menace lurking in Cloud City. It recurs in the film’s final segment to remind us of Lando’s true allegiance, an effective refrain.

8. “Luke’s Rescue”
 Another very short piece, and I confess I have very fond memories of hearing it in many Star Wars video games as a youngling (most memorably in the opening scene of Star Wars: Dark Forces II). But it’s a nice bit of musical reassurance that Luke Skywalker is indeed going to be okay, a jaunty 90 seconds or so that communicates the lifted spirits of the snowspeeder pilots at finding their generals alive.

7. “Yoda’s Theme”
 One of a number of original themes Williams composed for Empire, “Yoda’s Theme” makes it this high on the list for being longer than the others thus far, and second, for its versatility in the way Williams uses it throughout this film and the next one. But it also discloses the idea that “wars not make one great” – where Darth Vader gets a brassy bombastic anthem, the great Jedi Master Yoda gets a more contemplative, more melodic piece that bespeaks his great wisdom.

6. “Yoda and the Force”
 And speaking of ways that Williams weaves “Yoda’s Theme” into the film, I get chills thinking about this moment, and it’s due almost exclusively to the way Williams’s score builds as Luke tries, then fails, to lift his X-Wing from the swamps of Dagobah before Yoda’s theme rises triumphantly over the score, with a dramatic fanfare (which you may have recently heard in trailers for The Force Awakens) closing out as Luke and the audience stand agape at Yoda’s power.

5. “The Battle of Hoth”
 This is one of my go-to tracks for pumping myself up, getting myself in gear – all the clichés entailing motivation are addressed by this track. It begins with the Rebels rallying their forces before the Imperials attack, and then it’s ten minutes that just don’t stop. If you think a track of this length is cheating, I can distill “The Battle of Hoth” to the five-note ba-dum ba-dum-bum percussion that scores the march of the AT-AT walkers and that really says what the battle is all about: a hopelessly outgunned force fighting with all they’ve got against a relentless enemy.

4. “Han Solo and the Princess”
 I could never understand why, when “Across the Stars” was released on the Attack of the Clones soundtrack, it was hailed as the first great love theme in the Star Wars franchise when “Han Solo and the Princess” so clearly fits that bill. The best use of it comes when Han and Leia have their romantic “My hands are dirty too” rendezvous, but it’s one of those pieces that conjures up the entirety of the relationship in about three minutes. If we don’t hear this piece in The Force Awakens, we riot.

3. “The Asteroid Field”
 Would you believe that Han Solo doesn’t have his own theme? “The Asteroid Field” is the closest we come, and fortunately it’s a doozy of a track and in any other film would probably be the standout musical sequence. (However... check out the rest of the list!) It’s a grand sweeping action track that begins with a wonderful variation on “The Imperial March” but quickly segues into a frenetic collision of ideas as Han struggles to repair the Falcon before launching his audacious escape attempt with a track that positively soars.

2. “The Imperial March”
 Do I need to justify this one? It’s a track that has very nearly supplanted the “Main Theme” in terms of recognizable association with the film franchise, and it’s so iconic that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t part of Darth Vader’s cinematic DNA from the very beginning.

1. The entire last half-hour of the movie.
Before the masses rally up in arms at my #1 choice, consider the following: I will put the last thirty minutes of Empire against any consecutive half-hour of film score out there, because nothing can be more epic, more comprehensive, more engaging than what John Williams gives us for the finale of Empire. In a musical landscape of love, loss, struggle, and revelation, Williams manages to weave all the film’s signature motifs together in a powerhouse suite of sorts which works just as well detached from the film as it does in context. It’s become my default music lately, perfect for study sessions, long drives, cleaning the house, or strolling around the block. If you want to know why John Williams is the maestro, the last half hour of Empire has your answer.

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite Empire Strikes Back musical moment! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss my “Top 10 Return of the Jedi Musical Moments!”

Monday, September 21, 2015

Monday at the Movies - September 21, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”

Nightcrawler (2014)Nightcrawler is one of those critically acclaimed films that I missed during last year’s Oscar season, something that never registered high on my radar but always felt like I’d get around to it eventually. I finally did, on a very small television in the middle of the night, and I’d venture to say that that’s the perfect way to view this film. As Louis Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal is supremely creepy as a videographer turned ambulance chaser who sells his footage to morning news programs. Think Taxi Driver meets Blow-Up by way of American Psycho; it’s a captivating performance, Gyllenhaal with his lean wolfish appearance and relentlessly unsettling efforts at charisma, that doesn’t quite let you forget who’s underneath the character but allows you to look at him askance as you ponder just how bad it’s going to get. And oh my, does it get bad – bad in the sense of morally transgressive, never unwatchable but ethically uncomfortable for how compelling the movie ends up being. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this was director Dan Gilroy’s first outing behind the camera, for the tension he creates as Louis slips further into amorality is absolutely palpable, literally placing me on the edge of my seat as Louis’s master stroke unfolds. Indeed, the metaphor of a car crash is particularly apt, since Louis frequently films those, but it’s also gripping in the way that a moment of brutality is, prompting the viewer to wonder just how complicit we are in these actions. We watch the news, but how often do we turn away when that salivating teaser of “graphic footage” is intoned? How much guilt can be placed solely at the feet of Louis and his ambitions? And what’s Gilroy going to direct next? This is one to watch, folks.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!