Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Grand Marvel Rewatch: Iron Man

Face front, true believers! Welcome to the first in a limited series of ongoing posts entitled “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” designed to get us all sufficiently amped up for Captain America: Civil War, which comes out May 6, 2016. Each Wednesday, The Cinema King casts his eye back upon the twelve films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and offers five salient observations about the caliber of the films and the way they might play into Marvel’s latest installment in America’s favorite franchise.

First up, let’s throw it back all the way to 2008 – eight years ago! – for Iron Man, the place it all began.

  1. This movie holds up. I’m not one to only watch these movies once, so I’ve probably seen Iron Man the most of all twelve – and not just by virtue of it being the oldest. But even though I find myself doing most of the dialogue right along with the film, it doesn’t feel stale. Indeed, it feels as if it’d work just as well if it came out today. It sets a wonderful bar for the MCU, builds a world almost immediately, and initiates a delightful brand of humor that never transgresses into Batman and Robin territory. 
  2. Robert Downey, Jr., is perfectly cast. Look, Iron Man doesn’t work without RDJ, and it’s safe to say that the entire MCU is built on the shoulders of this film. So it’s a good thing that RDJ is pitch-perfect as the swaggeringly confident Stark; the improvisational quality of the film gives it a fast pace that requires a gifted performer to keep up, and RDJ manages to navigate the fast-talking attitude along the character’s evolution into a comparatively more responsible hero. And it’s not a coincidence that the Tony Stark who appears in post-2008 Marvel Comics is essentially a printed version of RDJ – that’s character redefinition, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since “Heart of Ice.”
  3. The chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow is underrated. It’s easy to forget that there’s anyone else in this film besides RDJ, but I want to give a special shout-out to Gwyneth Paltrow’s turn as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s doting assistant, walking conscience, and life support system. It’s somewhat criminal that Pepper won’t be in Civil War (at least, so far as we know), because it’s hard to imagine Tony having a crisis of conscience without Pepper’s presence. Aside from Paltrow’s wonderful presence as the counterpoint to RDJ’s frenetic energy, the romantic tension between the two doesn’t feel compulsory; instead, you feel from the opening that these two genuinely care for each other, and their endpoint – somewhere between playful banter and tender affection – feels earned by the film.
  4. That world-building, son. Iron Man does this wonderful thing where it’s perfectly fine as a standalone film. Director Jon Favreau quickly builds a universe for the characters to inhabit, and if we never had an MCU to follow we certainly wouldn’t have known this was a prelude to a much larger franchise. There’s that opening sequence in the back of the Humvee (or, as Tony calls it, “the Funvee”), memorable for its deft introduction of tone while also establishing the climax of the first act. But at the same time, Iron Man lays all kinds of seeds for the MCU to come, and we can go all the way to the very end of the film and its iconic post-credits sequence (you are now free to imagine Samuel L. Jackson turning up at the end of any movie saying, “You think you’re the only [insert profession here] in the world?”). 
  5. Phil! You know, I’d almost forgotten that Iron Man marks the debut of Agent Phil Coulson, ostensibly the most important original character imported into the comics since Harley Quinn appeared in Batman: The Animated Series. Clark Gregg just kills it with a strikingly nuanced performance (or maybe those are retrospective lenses I’m wearing) that suggests at first a timid pencil pusher before revealing himself to be something of a badass. Again, Coulson’s a great example of how the film carves out its own turf without feeling like it’s in deference to a larger narrative. Coulson would go on to headline his own show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but we always remember him as the guy who never got to debrief Tony Stark because (headcanon alert) he was too busy becoming Pepper’s bestie and stealing all our hearts in the process.
There’s so much more to be said about Iron Man, so be sure to check out my original review. Join me in the Grand Marvel Rewatch over the coming weeks, and hit the comments to share your thoughts about the MCU. And don’t forget to tune in next Wednesday for the next installment, in which we take a closer look at 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. Excelsior!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Monday at the Movies - February 8, 2016

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” Before the onslaught of superhero movies this year, let’s slow things down a bit with a smaller, animated feature.

Batman: Bad Blood (2016) – Following Son of Batman and Batman vs. Robin, this is the third standalone Batman animated film in a new continuity, the most significant changes being that Jason O’Mara has replaced Kevin Conroy as The Dark Knight, and said Knight has a son, Damian (Stuart Allan). As the third movement in what is ostensibly a trilogy, a few loose ends get revisited – Damian’s tenuous status between his superhero father and his terrorist mother Talia al Ghul (Morena Baccarin, who sounds to be phoning it in more than on Son of Batman), Nightwing’s uneasy relationship with the boy, and an overall updating of the mythology to accommodate its most recent additions. It’s on the grounds of this element that Bad Blood has its greatest success – much of its central content has only just been added to the Batman mythos in the last ten years. Damian, Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski) and Batwing (Gaius Charles), plus villain The Heretic are newcomers that fit in quite well with the standing Batman lore, and the film does them a great service in introducing them to new fans and old diehards alike. Bad Blood is, as the title suggests, a little bloodier than we’re used to (an exploding head seems out of place for Gotham City), and there’s a surprising lack of Batman here, as he spends a good portion of the film “dead.” Fortunately, the new faces rise to the occasion, particularly Allan’s Damian, who continues to steal the show. Bad Blood does feel a bit transitory, a waypoint on the way to the next film and its larger cast, but my interest in these iterations of Batwoman and Batwing is sufficiently piqued.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week, but stay tuned this Wednesday for the first in a brand-new feature!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Monday at the Movies - February 1, 2016

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” We haven’t done one of these in a while, but it’s a bit of a dry spell at the box office, and I couldn’t very well review Lego Marvel’s Avengers, could I?

A Long Way Down (2014) – There’s something very British in the idea of making a dark comedy about four people who decide not to commit suicide because they’ve all ended up at the top of the same tall building. The thing is, this adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel struggles to capture the complexity of the characters and, more importantly, never quite figures out whether it wants to be a dark comedy, a sentimental tragicomedy, or a slice-of-life character sketch. Consequently, it comes off very unevenly, failing to navigate the mood swings that Hornby’s text deftly juggled. The good news, however, is that A Long Way Down isn’t unwatchable, and its ensemble cast acquits themselves admirably and compellingly. Pierce Brosnan plays a jaded broadcaster with a criminal record, while Toni Collette is gently heartbreaking as the helpless mother of a disabled son. But it’s Aaron Paul as the disaffected guitarist and Imogen Poots as the spirited Jess who manage to walk off with the film wholesale, spot-on casting from the novel. It’s a shame, though, that these two have the bulk of their characterization stripped in the transition from book to film, such that there’s actually a moment – I kid you not – where Jess asks the rest to sum up their reason for suicide in one word. The internal monologue from the novel was much richer, but as cinematic adaptations go A Long Way Down isn’t a catastrophe. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, and at ninety-six minutes it has the good sense not to overstay its welcome.

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

After catching up on most of the Oscar flicks from the past year that I’d rather not have waited until DVD to see, 2016 begins with a military film. I’m not sure why – the records don’t bear it out – but it feels like this is exactly the sort of film with which I always begin my year, being a competently told but largely indistinguishable war film with a strongly personal focus bordering on hagiography. The real surprise, however, is that Michael Bay directed this one (about which, so much more later).

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi tells the true (and largely apolitical) story of a team of CIA military contractors (including among them John Krasinski and James Badge Dale) who defied the orders of their Chief (David Costabile) to mount an aid-and-rescue mission to the besieged American embassy in Benghazi in September 2012.

First of all, as an action film 13 Hours is a big success. My primary goal as a moviegoer (a kind of Declaration of Principles at the top of the year, for those just tuning in) is to escape – escape from today and into a narrative, preferably with some degree of spectacle. This isn’t to say that I require spectacle – Spotlight is definitely on my hypothetical Best-Of list for last year – but the project of escapism helps if something blows up. And boy, do things blow up in 13 Hours. The action sequences here don’t so much allow you to escape reality as grab you by your lapels and thrust you into an intense combat situation. Pair with that the film’s sense of unrelenting tension, the anxious attitude that the worst is just about to materialize, and you have a film that is very difficult to stop watching. I don’t imagine, for the home video crowd, that there are many good spots to get a refill or take a bathroom break.

To say that 13 Hours is compelling stuff is not, however, to say that it’s a new classic. There’s nothing particularly innovative in it, nothing really memorable beyond the memory of being engaged in the moment. It doesn’t demand a second viewing, doesn’t invite a critical rethinking of one’s premises. It is, in the most earnest sense of the phrase, a popcorn film, albeit one which is not lazily made. It is actually quite well-made, cogently directed but with little on either end of the lazy/ambitious spectrum.

This, then, is the film’s greatest surprise – that 13 Hours was directed by Michael Bay. It’s remarkable to realize that 13 Hours contains very little of the excess that made such a mess of the Transformers franchise. There is little inappropriate comic relief; one recognizes, though, that the translator Amahl (Peyman Moaadi) is the kind of character that would be played by John Turturro, dialed up to eleven, and/or be the focal point of a thousand gross stereotypes if this were a Transformers movie. More agreeably, 13 Hours contains none of the leery sexuality of Transformers, by which I mean there are no young women in skimpy clothing bending over cars. 13 Hours is, however, as hypermasculine and rah-rah patriotic, though it’s presented less in the form of an advertisement and more built into the narrative itself. That is, the entire movie is “the army saves the day” rather than relegate that moment to merely a montage set to the music of AC/DC. It is, dare I say it, a more restrained and perhaps even mature Michael Bay film (which is, admittedly, a short putt).

It’s evident that Bay has a tremendous respect for the Armed Forces, though it borders on canonization in a few moments. We’ve seen a turn in war films toward an emphasis on individual heroism and away from sweeping historical narratives; there’s little of overt political content in the film, though a few beats of narrative readily politicized by pundits and politicians alike. Bay is more interested in the human element than the currents of history, though the scriptwriting is so on-the-nose that a repeated quotation from Joseph Campbell – explicitly mythologizing the “secret soldiers” and deifying them with the subtlety of a Mack truck – falls flat because of both how out-of-place it feels and how carelessly overt it is. While the direction of the film is more discreet than Bay has delivered of late, the hagiography isn’t. (One could imagine a cut of the film which eliminates the Campbell altogether, allowing the audience to intuit Bay’s point, and I’d have to say I’d have preferred this version. Show, don’t tell.)

Not an instant classic, not a groundbreaker, nor the political bombshell the 2016 candidates might have wanted, 13 Hours is competent enough and compelling enough that it makes for a fine diversion at the start of the year. It bodes well enough for Bay’s maturity as a filmmaker as, at the very least, a step in the right direction, but then again Transformers 5 is due next year. So much for that idea.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is rated R for “strong combat violence throughout, bloody images, and language.” The film is intensely violent, often graphically so, but comprised more of explosions and gunfire punctuated by moments of gore. There are a fair amount of F-words, though the context makes them seem less distasteful.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Revenant (2015)

2016 is shaping up to be the year of “Is it just me?” I’m closer to thirty now than I’ve ever been before, and I’m increasingly feeling out of touch with the critical community; I still love a good Marvel superhero flick, more inclined as I am to forgive/overlook their failings. Meanwhile, critical darlings are drifting past me in severely underwhelming fashion. I sniffed at Mad Max: Fury Road, which now has a Best Picture nomination to its name, and I couldn’t disagree more with those who said The Hateful Eight was the work of a mature Tarantino.

Now here I am at The Revenant, “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes and lauded with Oscar nominations and Golden Globes victories aplenty. And again I’m asking the question that seems poised to be on my lips for the rest of the year – did we all see the same movie? For my money, The Revenant was more than a little boring, containing as it does a few viscerally composed memorable moments punctuated by long reels of punishment that border closer to cinematic sadism than awards bait.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in the role which will likely win him his first Oscar (about which, more later), stars as Hugh Glass, a frontiersman left for dead by his comrades (Tom Hardy and Will Poulter). Amid an unremitting landscape and every possible way to die in the wilderness, Glass stumbles, bleeds, and inches his way back to civilization – and his revenge.

I’m a bit of a newcomer when it comes to director Alejandro González Iñárritu, but I thought Birdman was a masterpiece, brilliantly anchored by Michael Keaton’s commanding lead performance with a delightful ensemble cast backing him up. And after The Revenant, I was reminded just how good Birdman was, because The Revenant lacks most of what made Birdman so compelling. Instead of a snappy script with snappier performances and a directorial eye that knows to keep the film moving, The Revenant has one strong performance that plays out its one-note fairly quickly, while the supporting cast is given short shrift in favor of long – and I mean gruelingly long – wide takes of landscape, the likes of which perhaps more properly belonged in an ode to 70mm like The Hateful Eight.

“Belabored” is the word I’d use most for The Revenant. DiCaprio is bludgeoned by the weight of survival, and he does an adequate job portraying a man at the limits of his capacity to survive, but more than two and a half hours it’s excruciating only to a point, at which moment the viewer becomes dulled to the horror of the wilderness, moving instead in the “Well, what else did you expect? Of course [insert tragedy here] was bound to happen at this rate.” Ditto for the unforgiving landscape, which at first seems horrifyingly blank but soon becomes commonplace, painful to the retinas more than to the soul.

And speaking of souls, I sense that The Revenant is going for spiritual commentary in its dreamlike editing, but there is not the thickness of narrative needed to support such intuited depth. The motivations of all the protagonists are, frankly, still somewhat baffling, and the political climate of the time isn’t adequately fleshed out. All the time that could have been devoted to these plots is instead exhausted on calamity and bloodshed and struggling, leading the audience to feel that the point was more about punishment than any narrative arc. One must recognize that there is something much deeper in Hardy’s character than the film permits him to display, and I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see more of Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, or perhaps that’s just a reflection of how much I liked his understated sneer of a villain in The Force Awakens.

There are things enjoyable in the film, predominantly the most violent bits in which the plot moves forward and the languorous quality of the film pays off. The bear scene, about which much ado has been made, is brutal in a technically sound way, and the final confrontation between DiCaprio and Hardy does justice to the relationship between the two characters. At the end of the day, The Revenant tries to overwhelm but ends up underwhelming. Though DiCaprio is good enough in the film, he’s not overpoweringly commanding, leading this reviewer to suspect that his Oscar win next month (which is all but assured – or so I predicted about Keaton in Birdman last year) will be more a lifetime achievement award than a recognition that this is as good as it got this year. The same happened to Denzel Washington for Training Day, which was good but not his career best (that honor goes to Malcolm X or John Q).

Or maybe I’m just out of the loop. But I can’t say that I’d put The Revenant on my Top 10 of 2015.

The Revenant is rated R for “strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity.” This thing is intense, as I’ve said, and Iñárritu is unapologetic in his depiction of blood. There’s a rape sequence in which nothing is shown, though in another scene a dead man is seen naked from a moderate distance.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Upon receiving word of his wife’s death and the army marching on his gates, Macbeth famously lamented that life itself was nothing more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I return to this quotation every once in a while because it is, as so much of Shakespeare’s dialogue, incredibly poetic and deftly precise in expressing something ineffable about the human condition. And I can’t help feeling that Macbeth might have had a similar – if pronouncedly less fatalistic – reaction to George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which has heretofore been hailed as one of the greatest action films of the past year, if not of all time.

To which I have to ask – did we all see the same movie? Because I didn’t see a movie that merits being labeled the #1 film of 2015, as more than a dozen critics have done. The movie I saw was a tale competently told by a very capable director, full of so much sound and fury they put it in the title and the name of a main character, ultimately signifying very little beyond its surface. It is far from distressingly poor, but it is certainly underwhelming after all of the hype.

Carrying a negligible connection to the Mel Gibson trilogy of yesteryear, the film finds the eponymous Max (Tom Hardy) along for the ride when Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) stages a breakout for the wives of warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). What ensues is a chaotic, frenetic, and seemingly endless chase across the barren wasteland of the apocalypse.

First of all, I don’t mind that the film is an extended chase sequence. As I said at the top of the review, the action scenes are very competently directed, and I give Miller a tip of the hat for managing to do much of it with practical effects and to keep a suitable level of tension even when the scenes become a tad protracted. (Kudos also to Junkie XL, who wears his Hans Zimmer homage on his sleeve with a score that smacks of Man of Steel.) The problem I have with the action sequences is that there really are too many of them at the same level of intensity to the point where I became desensitized fairly quickly. I wasn’t bored, although I did feel a certain languorous sensation after seeing someone run over by enormous tires for the ninth time. Miller has a wonderful bag of tricks in the first few “episodes” of car chases, but as the film continues to do the same stunts Fury Road loses something of its original feeling.

The film has a very specific rhythm, episodic in its approach to narrative repetition but ultimately cyclical because, yes, at one point in the chase they do turn around and head back the way they came, which maybe feels more like a metaphor for the film than Miller intended. We’re driving and we’re stopping, then we’re driving and we’re stopping, and by about the third go-round of this pattern Fury Road felt a bit like its own greatest-hits compilation.

Two comparisons here, the first of which is to the superlative Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, particularly the tank chase sequence. The reason that sequence stands out is because it’s unique; it does a number of things that the film hadn’t done and wouldn’t do again, and it does them all particularly well with a fantastic sense of peril even though we know there’s really no chance that Indy will meet a crunchy fate. Imagine, though, a film comprised of four or five tank sequences, turned up way past eleven, and with Tom Hardy’s monosyllabic grunts in lieu of the charisma of Harrison Ford, and you have something approximately like Fury Road. Again, there’s something to enjoy there, but I’m flabbergasted at the number of critics who put this at #1 of all of 2015.

Next, Pacific Rim. Now I know what you’re going to say – “This again?” Well, yes, and Mad Max: Fury Road is decidedly not Pacific Rim, thank heavens. But it does many things in common with Pacific Rim, which I find problematic in terms of getting me engaged as an audience member. Fury Road’s characters are largely archetypical, compared to Pacific Rim’s gross stereotypical figures. You have Max, who’s the good guy because he’s the good guy; Furiosa, the Strong Female Character whose motivations are to do the right thing because It’s The Right Thing; and Immortan Joe, the evil one-percenter who’s bad because he’s Bad. (Compare to Pacific Rim’s cliché Mako Mori, a Japanese woman skilled in the art of war to avenge her family, or the pigeonholed effete British scientist with a limp.) What I think resonates with Fury Road more than Pacific Rim, though both are essentially onomatopoetic, is that primal storytelling which relies on archetypes (the same reason The Force Awakens struck a chord). It is, however, extremely thin archetypal storytelling.

Why is it, though, that I felt physically enervated at the end of Whiplash but otherwise emotionless when the credits rolled on Fury Road? Again, I wasn’t as invested in Max and Furiosa as some of my friends and fellow critics have become. It was very much a sense of, “Oh, that’s it?” Quite honestly, I got quantitatively the same emotional rush from the trailer for Fury Road as I did from the full film, in about a single percentage of the time. It left me feeling a bit empty, as if Miller had relied on my complicity in the mutually agreed-upon coolness of the film. Yes, things do blow up, and I’m as big a fan of explosions as the next guy (who happens to be my father, in this case), but the charm wears off after the fourteenth car explodes after flipping over an indecent amount of times.

It’s competently made, but let’s not fall over ourselves in praising Mad Max: Fury Road. There is something very alchemical when a movie works and when it doesn’t, and for me Fury Road just wasn’t the transcendent experience I’d been led to expect. If we can revise a phrase from Shakespeare once more, it’s not exactly much ado about nothing, but it strikes me that Fury Road is a very loud amount of ado about very little.

Mad Max: Fury Road is rated R for “intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images.” Being that the film is essentially an extended post-apocalyptic car chase, there are numerous explosions and vehicular injuries, including people getting run over by tires. Several characters have what appear to be radiation burns and other deformities. While many of the women wear skimpy outfits throughout the film, one woman is seen fully naked, but from behind and at a great distance.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The name of the game in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, is not race relations in America, nor is it the thoughtful interrogation of justice it thinks it is. It’s not a postwar state of the union, a snowbound Twelve Angry Men, or even a claustrophobic Django Unchained. No, the name of the game is exorbitance, an immoderate superfluity indulging in the most colorful – and overfull – version of the story. When the characters on screen play raconteur, it’s charming and engaging, but Tarantino’s intemperance in the same suggests a contempt for his audience which is, frankly, wearisome.

En route to deliver his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the hangman’s noose, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) finds his carriage occupied by fellow bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the sheriff (Walton Goggins) of Red Rock, the foursome’s destination. A blizzard, however, detours the carriage to Minnie’s Haberdashery, an insular cabin already populated by four quirky characters – a hangman (Tim Roth), a Confederate general (Bruce Dern), a writer (Michael Madsen), and caretaker Señor Bob (Demián Bichir). As the snow falls, tensions rise when the occupants of Minnie’s find that not all of them are telling the full truth.

That’s a really keen premise. Armond White took the words right out of my mouth when he called The Hateful Eight a cross between Agatha Christie and John Ford (those are, however, the only words we have in common). It’s akin to an adaptation of And Then There Were None as filmed on the set of Bonanza with the profanity filter set to Deadwood. And in the hands of a screenwriter who could restrain himself in the way that he restricts the setting, The Hateful Eight could have been a masterclass in a lot of ways that would make Sidney Lumet smile with admiration.

Tarantino is not, however, that filmmaker. It’s very nearly accurate to refer to The Hateful Eight as his most narcissistic film, as in love with the sound of his own dialogue as he clearly is, but he’s equally enamored of the Wyoming landscape which must look a treat in 70mm (which I didn’t see) but otherwise come off as sideshow decoration, and there are only so many lingering shots of landscape one can bear before the weight of three hours feels a punishing burden. The fact is that The Hateful Eight might have been a much stronger film had it been pruned much more tightly. Of its six chapters, for example, one (the fifth) is entirely negligible, consisting as it does of yet another mindless slaughter whose particulars any thinking audience would rightly have inferred. Rendered in its full Technicolor glory (and gory), however, it’s one more note of excess in a film that is grossly (and I use the term advisedly) bloated.

That’s not to say there isn’t anything to be enjoyed in The Hateful Eight. Jackson is, as ever, charismatic and a joy to watch; there’s a surprising chemistry between Jackson and Russell, poignant at both ends of the spectrum from their lukewarm greeting to the simmering disappointment between them. And there’s a knockout sequence at the beginning of Chapter Four where the tension is at fever pitch, recalling the tensest moments of Inglourious Basterds when the narrator – in a gimmick I usually loathe but here can’t imagine a better deployment – reveals that all is not as it seems because someone knows something the others in the room don’t. As Minnie’s descends into amateur sleuthing and chaotic distrust, we get glimpses of the dynamite that The Hateful Eight could have been.

Instead, we get a film that sags under its own weight. There are good performances in it, memorable moments, but what ought to be the standout feature – Tarantino’s dialogue – is utterly and disappointingly unmemorable. (I defy you to quote a line from it, the way you could after Django or Pulp Fiction.) Tarantino has said that he’s only going to direct two more films, and if that’s the case he may need a new editor (apologies to Fred Raskin, who did a good job on Django but didn’t nay-say enough here). Something’s gotta give, and at three hours with The Hateful Eight, this time it was me.

Is it some kind of perverse pattern that I’m destined not to enjoy fully the first film I review each year?

The Hateful Eight is rated R for “strong bloody violence, a scene of violent sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.” It’s a Tarantino movie, so you’ve got your usual (read: exorbitant) quantity of N-words, F-bombs, and strawberry-colored effluvium. A man is seen fully nude while another man narrates about sexually assaulting him, with colorful prose.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Joy (2015)

Joy rounds out a kind of thematic trilogy for director David O. Russell, but it’s a trilogy unified more by a stable company of performers – chief among them Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro, with a few other bit players recurring in the mix. Of these, preceded by Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, Joy is perhaps the least successful of the lot – not by dint of being an abject failure but by never quite reaching the heights of the other two. Lawrence, however, turns in what might be her best performance yet.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Joy Mangano, the QVC maven who made her millions with the Miracle Mop, a self-wringing cleaning device borne out of her own frustrations as a single mother living with both her father (Robert De Niro) and her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) in the basement. Bradley Cooper has a small supporting role as Neil Walker, the QVC exec who puts Joy’s product into the market.

Joy isn’t going to go down as Russell’s strongest film – I really do think Silver Linings Playbook holds that title – but I do think Lawrence has done her best work as a member of the Russell company, and I would put very real money on her seeing a third Best Actress nomination at the top of next year. As the eponymous Joy, Lawrence is riveting, from her beleaguered moments in the home to her natural charisma before the QVC camera. The film tasks Joy with representing the struggles faced by all women, and Lawrence is more than capable of bearing that weight.

That universality is one of the peculiarities of the film because I can’t help feeling that it would have been more successful had it adhered more strictly to the unique aspects of Joy’s story rather than an attempt to make her “every woman.” For one, I think the QVC sequences are among the best in the film, and I would have preferred this to be more than a small subplot. Russell has an eye for the innate strangeness of the QVC network, and a fuller treatment of that material (including the wonderfully strange cameo of Melissa Rivers as her mother Joan) would have been truly engaging – to say nothing of the chemistry that Lawrence and Cooper clearly have. Honestly, that’s the movie I thought we were getting, but sadly it’s unlikely we’ll see a Joy 2 that fleshes out that relationship in greater depth.

The movie keeps its eye tightly focused on Joy, often to the detriment of the other performers. It’s not that De Niro or Cooper are any less captivating than they usually are – De Niro is scene-stealing, particularly in an early tantrum about his ex-wife’s similarities with a gas leak – it’s more that there is just less of them to captivate. On reflection, it seems the largest supporting role belongs to Isabella Rossellini as Trudy, Joy’s principal investor and commercial mentor of sorts whose idiosyncratic approach to vetting entrepreneurs lends the film one of its greatest moments of empowerment. These moments provide glimpses of the A+ work that Joy might have aspired to be, had it taken off its Lawrence-shaped blinders.

Rotten Tomatoes has the self-congratulatory pun that the film “only sporadically sparks bursts of the titular emotion.” This joke misses the point of the film, because if you wanted a movie about joy you’ll have to check out Pixar’s summer offering Inside Out. This is instead a film about Joy, whose story is told reasonably well here, though the audience rightfully detects that Russell is capable of a fuller film than this. It’s perfectly serviceable, but transcendence belongs to the earlier films in this unofficial trilogy.

Joy is rated PG-13 for “brief strong language.” As might be expected, De Niro gets one F-bomb.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

First of all, if you haven’t seen The Force Awakens just yet, read on without fear of being spoiled (although really, what else did you have to do this weekend?). I’m very sensitive to the fact that this is a film with a heavy curtain of secrecy around it. The spoilers are out there if you really want them, but I’d advise anyone to go into The Force Awakens with a clean palate because this is a film that works best when it washes over you and introduces itself to you on its own terms. It’s a remarkable achievement, breathing new life into a franchise that needed it, setting a fantastic tone for the forthcoming Disney era.

Again, no spoilers here, so I’ll refrain from the usual plot synopsis, only to say that the film’s opening title crawl is immensely captivating stuff, clicking into place a lot of the rumors and official releases such that you have an instant sense of the state of that galaxy far, far away these thirty years after Return of the Jedi. In addition to the familiar faces of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) – listed in the order they’re credited on the film – The Force Awakens introduces us to a new trio: stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), and hotshot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). And menacing the galaxy is one more black-clad acolyte of the dark side, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the First Order’s plan to unseat the Republic.

I found myself thinking immediately of the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi from Return of the Jedi: “You cannot escape your destiny.” And while I’m on record as being one of those moviegoers who ordinarily detests the deus ex machina of destiny, it’s undeniably woven into the fabric of the Star Wars universe, and director JJ Abrams does some very intriguing work with it. Throughout The Force Awakens, we have characters who are either running from their destiny or sprinting headlong toward it, and all of them end up pretty much exactly where they are meant to be – from the stormtroopers in the opening scene to the folks present in the final shot of the film (and what a gorgeous, sweeping final shot it is). Heck, even Greg Grunberg, a childhood friend of Abrams, fulfills his destiny by appearing here as an X-wing pilot.

JJ Abrams had the unenviable task of being the only person to direct a Star Wars film without George Lucas's hand on his shoulder (including, of course, The Clone Wars and that horrible thing I watched last Friday). While I’ve never been a full Abrams disciple, there’s no question that he more than lives up to the legacy of the original trilogy. (As for the prequels, they’re largely set aside, save for one passing reference.) As a director, Abrams keeps the pace of the film at an even clip, sprinkling in enough humor to make this possibly the funniest Star Wars film in the saga without compromising the film’s overall tone. More apparent is the film’s reverential and referential attitude toward the original trilogy; nearly every sequence in the film has some callback to a previous moment, giving lie to George Lucas’s oft-quoted refrain about the poetry of the saga. But what’s remarkable here is that the aggregate effect isn’t one of plagiarism; there’s a deference, to be sure, to what came before, but it advances the saga forward and cues up more than enough for Episodes VIII and IX to continue to explore.

Bizarrely, and actually gratefully, I’m more interested in the new characters than in the returning faces. Yes, there’s a wonderful reintroduction moment for every returning character (even the ones you weren’t expecting to be applause-worthy), but the Finn-Rey-Poe trio could easily be the new Luke-Leia-Han for this generation, and not necessarily in that order. This is great news for the franchise as a whole, because it shows that Star Wars is capable of sustaining itself beyond the inevitable first flash of nostalgia that The Force Awakens was always destined (there’s that word again) to invoke. And say what you want about the prequels, but they always pointed to A New Hope, never sufficiently building their own world (save for those long and tedious political conversations). The Force Awakens propels the narrative forward, to say nothing of the introduction of an equally compelling trio (or quartet, depending on how you do the math) of antagonists. Let’s just say this – Kylo Ren is everything we wanted from Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker.

I’ll have to see the film again to give a more detailed assessment – I know there are folks chomping at the bit to talk about some of the more spoileriffic details – and I’d like to revisit the film with more of the John Williams score under my belt. I was just too overwhelmed by the film to drink it all in at once. And that’s such a good thing. I felt myself smiling like a child again once those blue words “A long time ago...” appeared on the screen, felt my jaw fall as the title crawl clued me into the story. I smiled, I laughed, I gasped, and I very nearly cried in a few moments, and not only out of sadness when the film went for the emotional tug. My eyes were misty because I felt, finally, I’d come home. Chills up my arms, chokes in my throat (not the kind induced by the dark side, mind you), and a permanent grin across my face: these were the feelings The Force Awakens conjured up in me. Like some magical incantation, cast out across the void of decades, Star Wars is back.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence.” This film is slightly bloodier than previous Star Wars films, but the level of violence and action is about the same.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Last night while the rest of the world slept, fans across the country were united in projecting their hopes, dreams, and imaginations against the latest – and, some have said, greatest – Star Wars film.

This is not a review of that film. This is a review written by a very confused, very dissatisfied Star Wars fan who, for the first and likely last time in his life, inflicted upon himself the horror, the horror, that is The Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978.

Any attempt to summarize the plot of The Star Wars Holiday Special, such as it is, would be doomed to inevitable failure. Suffice it to say that something has happened to prevent Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) from attending some kind of festivity (the nebulously defined “Life Day”), leading the audience to be held captive for a series of bizarre and senseless vignettes which can only loosely be defined as tangentially relevant to the Star Wars universe, including the sale of a mustache groomer, a Wookiee cooking/drag show, a kaleidoscopic sex drug, and the first appearance of Boba Fett, which is in no way, shape, or form worth sitting through this monstrosity.

To say that this film is unwatchable by modern standards would be to pay The Star Wars Holiday Special a compliment. It is, in fact, unwatchable by any standards of any generation ever. Ten minutes in, I was already not sure whether what I had seen – an interminably long segment which consists of an apparent Married With Children script done entirely in Wookiee-speak followed by a hallucinatory juggling act with Chewbacca’s bloated son Lumpy as voyeur – was actually real or whether I had somehow died on the way home that evening and dreamt up the rest.

The Holiday Special – a poor name indeed, for it is neither festive nor special –  is so catastrophically mystifying that it is a great wonder that Star Wars became the fan-fueled juggernaut that it is today. One wonders how many fans looked at this thing and never returned to that galaxy far, far away, for fear of getting another Holiday Special as recompense for their entertainment dollar. After twenty-five minutes, I felt so insensate that I wondered if Jar Jar Binks might show up as the least offensive thing on the screen. That’s right; a racist cartoon rabbit would not only fit in perfectly in the milieu of the Holiday Special, but might actually have been the most entertaining part of it. Wrap the ethical centers of your brain around that one.

Thirty minutes in, I had to go to the bathroom. I considered leaving it run in my absence, wondering if it would make a difference. I started asking myself a lot of questions. Would I miss anything of merit? (No.) How the hell did they get Art Carney to appear in this travesty? Was this still canon, in the wake of the Great Disney Purge? Had it ever been canon? What had become of my life that I was thinking so deeply about this thing at eleven at night? Could I ever enjoy anything ever again?

Halfway through the Holiday Special, my computer abruptly restarted itself. A scan of my computer revealed no corrupted processes, no viruses, no malware. It is as if my computer refused to suffer any further indignity by playing a moment more of the Holiday Special than was absolutely necessary, as if it wished to spare me the perpetual suffering. As I verified that my computer wasn’t irreparably damaged by the experience, I found myself at a crossroads. I could go to bed, post the review as if I’d seen the whole thing. No one would know. No one would ever have to know, and I’d probably be doing myself a favor. But, equal parts stubborn and honest, I soldiered on.

Thank heavens I did. Not because the animated segment lived up to any expectations at all. No, I’m thankful I didn’t give up so that I’m never tempted to sit through this thing again. I can now say that I’ve watched the first appearance of Boba Fett, and the cartoon episode which interrupts the Holiday Special is as shambolic, plotless, and pointless as anything else in the ninety-some minutes of my life I’m never getting back. Then there’s a strange scene in which Bea Arthur cuddles with a hamster while tending bar at the Mos Eisley Cantina, in which the set and the costuming look even cheaper than their playfully hokey appearance in the original Star Wars film.

It’s at this moment in the Holiday Special that my mind returns to inquisition. Is this thing meant to be funny? Coherent? It’s certainly neither, though there are moments that playact at the former. In short, what the hell is this thing supposed to be, and on what level did anyone look at the finished product and say, “Yep, that’s something I want the rest of the world to see”? If this film was so much as shown a picture of a cohesive narrative, it wasn’t looking. It’s as if George Lucas had a child with David Lynch, and then that child were given a box of Star Wars action figures and a Betamax video camera, and then that child snorted a tremendous amount of cocaine and passed out. The Star Wars Holiday Special is that fever dream.

Thank God I’m going to see The Force Awakens in a matter of hours. I had said of the new film, “It can’t be worse than The Phantom Menace.” What I should have said was, “It can’t be as unfathomably inaccessible as The Star Wars Holiday Special.”

The Star Wars Holiday Special is rated why are you even still reading this.