Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Nothing to Fear"

“What hidden terror keeps the Batman awake at night?”

That’s the question The Scarecrow sets out to answer, robbing his way through a revenge scheme that Batman has to understand before he can put an end to the wiry villain’s plot. But just who is The Scarecrow? What does he want? And what really scares Batman?

“Nothing to Fear” is a great example of why Scarecrow is a tricky villain to get right, an A-list gimmick mixed with a B-level (at best) threat to Gotham City. We saw in Batman Begins much ado about Batman’s use of the power of fear, turning his adversaries’ fear against them. To that end, Scarecrow ought to be a first-rate foe for the Dark Knight, a feedback loop of phobia. And when Scarecrow douses Batman in his fear gas and delivers the line above, it seems we’re in for a real treat.

Bafflingly, however, that’s not quite the focus of the episode; indeed, it’s difficult to say what the focus is. The episode bounces between establishing Scarecrow’s motive for revenge, his execution of a fairly mundane heist-not-heist, and Bruce’s underlying fears that he’s failing the memory of his murdered parents. The last of those is where the real meat of the episode ought to be, but puzzlingly the writers throw in a wrinkle that Scarecrow’s fear gas is “time-released,” deferring a fuller consideration of the psychology of Batman until the very ending of the episode.

Don’t get me wrong – that moment packs a punch, often imitated but seldom duplicated. Amid the spectral accusation that he has failed his parents, Batman retorts, in the gravelly gravitas that only Kevin Conroy can bring, “I am vengeance! I am the night! I AM BATMAN!” It’s the kind of moment that would belong in the opening credits, if the opening credits to Batman: The Animated Series weren’t already so perfect, and it’s an affirmation – maybe the first of its kind in the show thus far – of just what Batman stands for, of how confident he is (and ought to be) in his mission. I would have liked, however, to see more of the episode devoted to that psychological journey rather than the criminal threat of Scarecrow.

You see, Scarecrow works best when Batman has to overcome him on a psychological level. Once Batman gets his hands on Scarecrow, it’s a fairly quick fight. Again, Batman Begins did it just right, using Scarecrow as a preliminary to the main threat. I’ll say this a lot throughout this series of reviews, but it’s not that this is a bad episode per se; even a mediocre episode of Batman: The Animated Series is a perfectly fine diversion. Episodes like this do, however, underscore just how much more thoroughly these themes are explored in future episodes, like “Perchance to Dream” or “Over the Edge” (the latter featuring Scarecrow, in a shocking redesign – about which, much more later).

While parts of “Nothing to Fear” are more undercooked than I might like, there’s some good stuff in this episode. Last March, moviegoers were treated to one more iteration of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. A lot of us felt like, “This again?” (even though it proved essential to the climax of the film), so kudos to “Nothing to Fear” for going in another direction and implying the backstory in order to foreground the effect this absence has had on Bruce Wayne. It’s wise that the show does this early in the run, permitting us to keep this knowledge in the back of our minds. This isn’t the overconfident Batman of 1966 or even the brooding detective of 1989. Here’s a Batman who exposes his humanity by wrestling with his doubts about whether his nocturnal missions are making the difference he needs to see.

It’s important to remember that in 1992 the Scarecrow wasn’t exactly a prominent member of the rogues gallery, so “Nothing to Fear” needs to do a certain amount of introduction for him, and in that sense it works. It also concludes with a delicious bit of irony when Scarecrow gets a dose of his own medicine (on which I suspect Batman Begins riffed). And the episode’s final moment introduces the looming motif of the Wayne family grave, a central image in the Batman: The Animated Series playbook. Bruce’s absurdly “cool” sunglasses, thankfully, aren’t in subsequent episodes.

Original Air Date: September 15, 1992

Writer: Henry Gilroy & Sean Catherine Derek

Director: Boyd Kirkland

Villain: Scarecrow (Henry Polic II)

Next episode: “The Last Laugh,” in which a clown dies, and a bath is drawn.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Silence (2016)

In thirteen years, I’ve not missed a single Scorsese theatrical release. In fact, most of them I’ve attended more than once. (The only other director who’s earned that degree of loyalty, you may be unsurprised to learn, is Christopher Nolan, who I’ve followed for twelve.) You should know – if you don’t already – that Martin Scorsese directed my all-time favorite film, The Departed, that I’ve never really been disappointed by him, and that I consider him easily one of the greatest and most reliable living film directors. Perhaps, then, I’m a little biased, but I contend that his latest, Silence, is an accomplished feat, a moody and mature contemplation of many of the themes that have dogged Scorsese throughout his oeuvre.

Based on the Shusaku Endo novel, Silence finds Jesuit missionaries Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) journeying to seventeenth-century Japan to investigate reports that their predecessor and mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has turned apostate and renounced the church. In the course of their investigation, they find a community of Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”) persecuted by a local inquisitor and his interpreter (Issei Ogata and Tadanobu Asano), testing their faith and demanding more of them than they may be prepared to give.

Two of Scorsese’s dominant themes have been the struggles of faith and the tensions of duty; in Goodfellas, Henry Hill labored under his obligations to his criminal friends, while Scorsese acquired some notoriety for the inquisitive The Last Temptation of Christ. And in The Departed, a film rife with Catholic guilt and misplaced paternalism, the blurred line between cops and criminals becomes too much for both protagonist Billy Costigan and antagonist Colin Sullivan. In Silence, our protagonists have their faiths tested in more severe ways, facing torture and death in a way that’s almost biblical. Silence has long been a passion project of Scorsese’s, and I mean that in several ways, as the Jesuit priests face their own Christ-like trials, compared alternately to Gethsemane and to the crucifixion.

At two hours and forty minutes, Silence will likely test moviegoers as well; Scorsese movies have always been something of an endurance test (his last, The Wolf of Wall Street, topped three hours), but usually they’re padded out with flashy editing, nonstop dialogue, and at least one Rolling Stones track. With Silence, none of those is on display; indeed, this is one of Scorsese’s least stylized, most subdued works – and it’s also among his most mature and most contemplative. At 74 years old, Scorsese has a clear and unapologetic reverence for the source material and the thematic content of Silence, and as Rodrigues undergoes his trials, we can sense something of Scorsese’s own wrestling with his faith amid the apparent silence of God.

As Scorsese seems to extract himself from the equation, directing in a subtle manner with only a few trademark quirks on display, Andrew Garfield is proving to have quite a year for himself. (And, strikingly enough, between this and Hacksaw Ridge, he’s not had much luck going to Japan.) His performance of Rodrigues as religiously challenged, horrorstruck by the conflict between his religious obligation and his sense of duty to the faithful, is sophisticated in a way that makes me worry he’ll split the Best Actor vote for himself with Hacksaw Ridge. The film’s Japanese cast – particularly Ogata, who’s been rightly compared to Christoph Waltz from Inglourious Basterds – more than hold their own opposite their western counterparts, and in some ways with the harder job as their roles are largely silent. And Neeson, as ever, is brokenheartedly stoic as the alleged apostate, whose appearance in the third act layers the narrative with pathos of a surprisingly tragic dimension.

As a fan of the 1966 novel, I had wondered how the film would capture the multiplicity of narrators in the book, but I needn’t have worried. Scorsese pulls it off beautifully, opting for meditation over exposition. But where the novel ended somewhat optimistically, redemptive in a way that reaffirmed the reader’s faith, Scorsese continues the story for a few more minutes, allowing the audience to ask whether Silence is actually a tragedy, the despair of a man who wonders whether God has been silent all along. Or do we too hear the voice of God in the silences of Silence?

Silence is rated R for “some disturbing violent content.” Directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese. Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Ciarán Hinds, and Liam Neeson.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "Christmas With the Joker"

“It’s never easy with The Joker.”

Jingle bells, Batman smells... and The Joker got away, making good his escape from Arkham Asylum on Christmas. While Batman and Robin pursue their greatest foe, The Joker broadcasts his threats of murder and mayhem on television, daring the Dynamic Duo to stop him before midnight.

Contrary to what Batman tells Robin (who makes his DCAU debut here, Loren Lester’s boyish charm matching perfectly the grim baritone of Kevin Conroy’s Batman), media adaptations of Batman have flocked to The Joker and reinterpreted him in a number of ways that seem almost effortless because The Joker defies fixity. He is, in essence, a floating signifier, represented variously as a buffoonish Punchinello of crime, a sinister rictus grin of death, a charming sociopath, a master planner, or an agent of chaos. In this episode, we’re introduced to Mark Hamill’s iconic take on The Joker, regarded by many (including this reviewer) as the definitive take on the character.

But surprisingly, this isn’t a particularly strong debut, especially with the benefit of hindsight. Don’t get me wrong – this episode is eminently watchable because of how playfully strange it is, but it’s not a fair indicator of what Hamill will bring to the table. For one, the voice is a little off; it’s obviously a first try, a rough draft, a voice in progress, somewhat more thuggish than the snarling British accent Hamill will perfect in later episodes.

The laugh, however, is spot on. Future episodes, particularly those penned by Paul Dini, will see The Joker with some real bellyachers of lines that are at once hilarious and uncomfortable. Here, the greatest glee is in the chortles, guffaws, and freewheeling giggles that burble from The Joker in unpredictable configurations. Hamill nails the laugh instantly, defining the character by it in a way that’s almost inhuman.

The plot of the episode, though, doesn’t do Hamill many favors, nor is it a specifically Joker episode – by which I mean, you could substitute any Batman villain in the role and the episode still works. Luring Batman out on Christmas with a holiday-themed hostage situation isn’t intrinsically Joker, so we don’t get to see much in the way of dramatic fireworks. That is, however, until we get to the punchline of the episode, which I won’t spoil.

Dr. Andrea Letamendi has advanced the theory that the episode demonstrates the Joker’s psychological need for Batman, whom he regards as a surrogate family on Christmas, a repressed desire expressed in the abduction of Commissioner Gordon, Summer Gleason, and Harvey Bullock as the “Awful Lawful Family.” It’s a great theory that adds a nifty layer of depth to the character, and as we’ll see later in the series this Joker doesn’t want to see Batman dead because “Without Batman, crime has no punchline.” As if it needed one!

If you’re playing along for the first time and haven’t seen the show before, don’t be alarmed: this is maybe one of the two least successful Joker episodes (“The Last Laugh,” reviewed two posts from now, being the other that doesn’t quite impress). That’s not to say this is an unwatchable episode, but when it comes to the Clown Prince of Crime the best is certainly yet to be. But hey, first time out of the gate, it’s never easy with The Joker.

Original Air Date: November 13, 1992

Writer: Eddie Gorodetsky

Director: Kent Butterworth

Villain: The Joker (Mark Hamill)

Next episode: “Nothing to Fear,” in which Batman shouts his new catchphrase at The Scarecrow.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Suicide Squad [Extended Cut] (2016)

2016 was a curious year for superhero films and their afterlives. Marvel and DC released two each, but only DC took its home video releases as opportunities for longer versions of its film slate. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice got an Ultimate Edition, half an hour longer and a little clearer in its execution. Suicide Squad, meanwhile, found itself the heir of an “Extended Cut,” gaining only ten minutes in the offing.

In a way, the nomenclature says it all. Suicide Squad isn’t a movie that was intended to be seen in a longer version like BvS, cut down by studio heads balking at three hours of Bat-sturm und Super-drang. Instead, director David Ayer presents an “extended cut,” more of the same that doesn’t shed much new light on the film, doesn’t clarify it in any meaningful way, but does provide more opportunity for the film to showcase its greatest strength – quirky personalities, well-casted, bouncing off of other strange rangers of whom I do hope we see much, much more.

Comparing an extended version naturally requires me to throw up a SPOILER WARNING, although it’s not exclusively the sort of spoiler that gives away the ending. (I do, however, discuss the film’s final scene at the end of this paragraph.) This is just an “extended” take on the story we’ve already seen, and it’s not substantially different from the film we got back in August. But discussing the differences naturally involves spoiling what they are, and the first (and perhaps most recognizable) difference is probably the film’s most appealing. We have a whole new flashback in which Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie, still the film’s shining star) chases down The Joker (Jared Leto) and demands that he make her his clown queen. It’s a smart move that adds agency to Dr. Quinzel’s fall into the identity of Harley Quinn, and it helps distance the film from the abusive relationship from the source material. Subsequently, it sheds more light on Harley’s dive into the vat of acids at Axis Chemicals; we have more context, and we know she’s chosen to go down this path. (Remember, in the theatrical cut, we move from Joker’s electroshock treatment right to Axis.) Harley’s less of a victim here, even if she’s still a dangerous psychopath, and it makes the film’s final frames – in which The Joker rescues Harley from prison – a little more palatable, a little more – dare I say it? – darkly romantic.

In the wake of Suicide Squad, a lot of buzz was devoted to Jared Leto’s Joker, and in this version he’s changed not at all. Even his modified involvement in Harley’s origin remains of a piece with his characterization in this film; he’s exasperated by her desire to join his criminal empire, but he goes along with it, because... well, why not? But while news emerged that much of Leto’s performance had been cut from the film (reported both by Leto and by eagle-eyed trailer viewers who detected something missing), rumors swirled that we’d see it all back in the Extended Cut. Not so, true believers, and so Joker exists unchanged in the Extended Cut. I’m still of the philosophical opinion that this is #NotMyJoker though he serves this film as well as he’s expected to be.

Margot Robbie continues to benefit most from the Extended Cut in two fun extended group scenes, which deepen the character dynamics while giving the performers a chance to get more comfortable in their clown paint, yakuza mysticism, and reptilian skin. It’s apparent why these scenes we’re cut – they’re far from cinematic, with long takes of characters walking and talking on their way to the next big special effects bonanza – but it’s a real loss for those who wanted Suicide Squad to be more of a character piece than it was. In one scene, Harley puts her psychotherapist skills (emphasis on the “psycho”) to work in diagnosing Killer Croc and Katana. The off-beat dynamic among these Gotham-centric characters in particular makes me hope that we’ll see them all together again in Ayer’s follow-up Gotham City Sirens (which nominally ought to include Catwoman and Poison Ivy alongside Harley Quinn).

In another scene, which ends up comprising an entire deleted subplot, we see that the Squad is plotting against Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a plan later abandoned when they realize how dangerous Midway City has become. It’s this kind of fun scheming that restores a sense of danger to these characters, a kind of inevitable unpredictability that reminds us that “Task Force X” is actually kind of a bad idea, and it’s something only a royal badass like Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, in pure “hell hath no fury” mode) could pull off.

I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone compare Suicide Squad to Watchmen, the seminal mid-1980s comic that redefined (and/or reminded) what the medium could accomplish using its own bag of tricks. So allow me to be the first in saying that Suicide Squad’s extended cut reminds me a great deal of Watchmen – but Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and the way its visual tricks aped the comic’s scene transitions. It’s not a major change at all, and it might even be that I’m misremembering the theatrical version, but it did jump out at me in this cut. For example, Harley Quinn looks down a flight of stairs, reminding her of the long fall at Axis Chemicals, or she sees a motorcycle that takes her mind back to chasing The Joker. It’s a small touch, but it aligns the film a little closer with the Snyder aesthetic by way of a non-DCEU comic book film, a little insider information much appreciated for those of us in the know, and it makes the film just a little bit more of a comic-book.

There’s a very funny Photoshop going around in which the only difference between two Suicide Squad posters is that a wound on Harley Quinn’s forehead is only slightly longer – hence, an extended cut. And it’s quite an apt metaphor in this case: the Extended Cut features Harley Quinn front and center, but the differences are more or less otherwise cosmetic. A little deeper and a little bit more fun, the Suicide Squad Extended Cut is more of the same for fans but less substantial than the much-improved Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition.

Suicide Squad is still rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language.” Written and directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, and Cara Delavingne.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Batman: The Animated Series - "On Leather Wings"

“This is Gotham Air One reporting in. Things are actually quiet for once.”

As night falls in Gotham, the city is gripped by terror when a mysterious bat-like creature goes marauding through robberies and violent assaults. There are only two people who know it isn’t Batman, and one of them is Batman himself, who sets out to solve the mystery of Gotham’s latest ne’er-do-well.

As first episodes go – and recall, this is the first episode (at least, in production order) of the entire DC Animated Universe, not just of Batman: The Animated Series – “On Leather Wings” might initially ruffle a few feathers. Neither retelling the classic origin story (rarely tweaked since 1939) nor pitting Batman against one of his most iconic foes, “On Leather Wings” instead demonstrates my favorite thing about Batman: The Animated Series: namely, how damn smart it is.

On the surface, “On Leather Wings” might seem fairly boilerplate – a bat-like creature is terrorizing Gotham, and Batman figures out what’s going on, tousling with the beast until he brings its crime wave to a halt. I’ve often wondered why “On Leather Wings” was the first episode, but I think I get it now. This episode isn’t about Man-Bat, as so many episodes of Batman ’66 were more about the colorful guest stars than the Caped Crusader himself. “On Leather Wings” is a show bible unto itself, a manifesto for who Batman is (and even a wink toward how he came to be).

First, any sense of how this episode defines the rest of the show in microcosm needs to acknowledge the stellar title sequence, which lays out in an eloquent 57 seconds the show’s take on Batman. I really can’t do a better job than Chris Sims in dissecting why the title sequence works so well, only to add that this teaser sequence also introduces us to the lushly gorgeous art deco aesthetic that governs this Gotham City somewhere between Tim Burton and Bob Kane.

The opening titles tell us facts about Batman, but “On Leather Wings” proceeds to interpret Batman for us through the most classic of comic book storytelling techniques – by pitting him against his direct opposite. As we’ll see, every Batman villain comments in some way on the Dark Knight’s psyche (Joker – order vs. chaos; Two-Face – identity crisis; Riddler – brains gone wrong, etc.), but Man-Bat is about as inverted as you can get. Instead of a Batman, he’s literally a Man-Bat. He’s a criminal instead of a hero. And he’s utterly inhuman, contrasted to Batman’s intense humanity.

That last part is very important. Notice in the final confrontation, Batman suffers multiple injuries, scratched and bloodied by episode’s end. Yet Man-Bat remains unwounded. Both men have refashioned themselves into bats, both fearing extinction (Batman, having seen his parents murdered, vows to end crime before it claims his life too, while Kirk Langstrom senses the impending evolutionary extinction of the human race), but Man-Bat has become a monster in the process. He injures the innocent, while Batman defends the police, even from their own grenades. (Hmm, if Gotham PD is so inept, maybe that bit about extinction wasn’t far off.)

Finally, they’re both detectives of a sort. Kirk Langstrom deduces the chemicals he needs to steal, and Batman pieces together the clues that lead him to Man-Bat. My favorite part of this episode is how methodically the episode depicts Batman as the world’s greatest detective, following the leads until he unites disparate cases of mistaken identity, theft, assault, and unethical biological experiments. It’s here that we’re introduced to a hallmark of the show – Kevin Conroy’s vocal variations between airheaded Bruce Wayne and cool meticulous Batman, another contrast that juxtaposes who Batman is with the performance he isn’t.

See, in contrasting Batman with a dark reflection of himself, we can learn something about what he is by seeing what he isn’t, but we also get a sense of what he could be if he loses track of his humanity. We see how important it is that Batman not lose those things that separate him from Man-Bat, lest he become the thing the city fears. That’s another great angle in “On Leather Wings”; the episode seeds a longer story about Batman’s status in the public eye. Is a costumed vigilante by definition a criminal? How much faith are we to put in him, as opposed to in the police force itself? It’s a battle for Gotham’s soul – a plot thread more directly picked up by Christopher Nolan – but the show wisely introduces us to the conflict and its central battlefield – Harvey Dent – all in the first episode. Tall order, “On Leather Wings,” but I think I finally get you now.

Original Air Date: September 6, 1992

Writer: Mitch Brian

Director: Kevin Altieri

Villain: Man-Bat (Marc Singer)

Next episode: “Christmas With The Joker,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

Monday, January 2, 2017

La La Land (2016)

In one of the most famous passages from his Confessions, Saint Augustine realizes he has been moved to tears by the suicide of Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. In hindsight, Augustine recognizes that the true tragedy was not the death of the Carthaginian queen but Augustine’s blindness to his own reality as a sinner – that is, he had no tears for the reality of his soul but rather had wasted them on the dimension of the imaginary.

I couldn’t help but think of Dido while I watched La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s eagerly-awaited follow-up to the masterful Whiplash, because it does feel like Chazelle is directly rebutting Augustine on this count. Yes, La La Land seems to declare, it is right and proper for us to weep for that which is not real, that which we cannot help but imagine in the language of film, for reality can often be dispiriting, unexpected, or filled with fear of the future.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as Sebastian and Mia, a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress whose paths continue to cross in Los Angeles until finally, inevitably, they surrender to temptation and fall in love. Amid the continual anxiety that they won’t make it in Hollywood, Sebastian and Mia inspire each other to pursue their dreams, even when they seem difficult and unattainable.

Aside from a few shots of single spotlights on jazz musicians, it’s difficult to tell that La La Land, wistful and nostalgic, comes from the same writer/director as the intensely furious Whiplash. Instead, La La Land feels like the postmodern thematic sequel to 2011’s The Artist, which reveled in the tropes of the silent film while reminding audiences of the acute sense of loss that came with the passing of an era. In the same way, La La Land embraces the aesthetic of the musicals of the 1950s (though in color, there are also affinities with the Fred-and-Gingers of the 1930s), lamenting the way that reality all so often fails to live up to the romanticized spectacle of a big Hollywood musical. Reality can be sweet, La La Land posits, but it’s got nothing on the polish and image surfaces made on a movie studio backlot.

And whether that makes the film’s final statement one of tragedy or beauty is, I think, in the eye of the beholder. If you have a romantic eye, thank God we have the movies; if yours is a cynical vision, how ignoble that we supplant reality with the image. But Chazelle is content to leave the rose-colored glasses of Hollywood in place as a filter, amplifying the emotions of the story by blowing them up into something extravagant, with a clever sense of humor that I hope isn’t lost on moviegoers. Mia and Sebastian’s first date takes them, naturally, to the movies, to see Rebel Without a Cause, but when things go awry they visit the Griffith Observatory, where parts of Rebel were set.

There, if we hadn’t been paying attention, Chazelle reveals his end game. What begins as a typical cute date turns into the fantastic (emphasis on fantasy) as they dance in the observatory and join the stars in a beautifully-shot midair waltz. It’s breathtaking in its unreality; there’s no doubt that this isn’t really happening – this isn’t Superman, after all; you won’t believe a man can fly – but isn’t it beautiful to imagine it so?

It’s really difficult to talk about this without discussing the ending of the film – and don’t worry, I won’t, because the third act has maybe the best gut-punch in recent memory, at least as far back as the last time my whole theater collectively gasped, at Frozen – so let’s shift gears and talk about the music. For those who, like me, still tremor a bit when thinking about the climax of Whiplash, there’s none of that in La La Land, thank heavens, but as far as the singing goes, I’ve seen a fair bit of critique laid at Gosling and Stone’s feet. While I do concede that they’re not the strongest singers on the screen these days, I do wonder if some of that is the point – Mia and Sebastian, as much as they want to be, are not stars just yet; Gosling’s piano playing, though, has rightly earned its share of accolades, and I do have to say that Emma Stone’s final number, “Audition” (as heard in many of the trailers), is as affective as Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream,” which in 2013 I described as a “heart-breaking . . . despairing ode that would drive even the stone-hearted Pharaoh to tears and will likely garner her an Oscar nod.” I have similar words to say about “Audition,” which pins all our hopes on Mia’s ability to connect with her auditioners, even as we quickly lose track of them and fall into the story Mia weaves.

La La Land is not Whiplash, although J.K. Simmons appears in both (here, he cameos as a club owner who’s a stickler for seasonal set-lists). Instead, it’s an elegy for a bygone film genre, a glimpse of a relationship which imagines itself in loftier terms, positing the question of whether “la la land” – suggesting Los Angeles, “la la” singing, and “la la” head in the clouds – is such a bad place to be. Under Chazelle’s watch, it’s anything but.

La La Land is rated PG-13 for “some language.” Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Music by Justin Hurwitz. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Memories of Princess Leia

I had just come out of a screening of La La Land (full review coming January 2) when I got the news that Carrie Fisher had passed away at the age of 60. It was like a kick in the guts, which unclenched when I realized it was the headline we’d been dreading for days after reading she had taken ill.

There was never any doubt in my mind that we’d see her at press junkets and red carpet events for the as-yet-untitled Episode VIII, laughing about what had happened with some wry morsel of self-deprecation and bracing honesty. Moreover, she’d be back because we needed her to be, because Star Wars seems unfathomable without our Princess Leia; lest we forget, she’s on screen a full twenty minutes before the ostensible hero Luke Skywalker. And honestly, after seeing the heist of the Death Star plans in Rogue One, it’s a little impossible to watch the original Star Wars without thinking of Leia as the heir to Jyn Erso’s mantle; who’s the real “new hope” here, the whiny farmboy whose chores stand in the way of his power couplings, or the regal politician turned rebel icon who stares down Darth Vader and lies to his face without breaking a sweat?

In a way, La La Land was a fitting bracer for the latest bit of bad news to come out of 2016. It’s a film that’s very concerned with memory, particularly visual/cinematic memory, and the ways that our filmic minds may be more powerful than reality, more romantically potent, even above and against the objective truth of reality. For most of us, all we have left of Carrie Fisher are her images, and as much of a force (no pun intended) as she was in Hollywood, I suspect that for very many of us she’ll always be Princess – or General – Leia. We might remember her as the M16-toting fiancé of Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers, the flower-child group therapist from Austin Powers, or as her own larger-than-life self as seen in Wishful Drinking.

However, even Carrie Fisher embraced the role that some said typecast her for life. “I got to be the only girl in an all-boy fantasy, and it’s a great role for women,” she told CBC in September. "She’s a very proactive character and gets the job done. So if you’re going to get typecast as something, that might as well be it for me.” To that end, with our filmic memories waxing nostalgic, we present five definitive Princess Leia moments. You might be expecting a Top 10 (and perhaps someday you’ll see it), but for now the occasion demands something special, a little bit unique. So put on the John Williams score and let’s remember the Princess as best we know how.

1. “Only you could be so bold.” I mentioned this moment at the top because it’s a hell of an introduction to Leia, and it tells us everything we need to know about the character. She’s fiercely loyal to her people (both those of Alderaan and those of the Rebel Alliance), and she’s far from cowed by the looming presence of Darth Vader, the scariest force of evil in the galaxy. But Leia, coded as vulnerable by her height and her all-white gown, refuses to bow; instead, she rips off one-liners of her own, later jeering at Grand Moff Tarkin’s “foul stench,” and she refuses to break, even under literal torture.

2. “This is some rescue!” The second act of Star Wars revolves around the effort to rescue Leia from the bowels of the Death Star, but it’s a beautiful treat that the rescue mission completely falls apart until Leia takes charge. Luke, Han, and Chewbacca storm the prison block, but it all goes awry, to which Leia’s reaction is the sly and often-quoted “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” She’s facing execution – Tarkin has said as much – but she refuses to be so much as impressed. Then, as the prison break collapses into a firefight, it’s Leia who rescues the rescue, sending them into the garbage chute and toward the Millennium Falcon.

3. “I love you.” “I know.” Leia spends much of The Empire Strikes Back on the run, but she’s always in control of the situation. She rightly assesses the moment to evacuate, she senses something is wrong about the asteroid “cave” in which they land, and she detects Lando’s misdeeds before Han has reason to doubt his old friend. But the one thing Leia misses is her own emotional range; throughout the movie, she’s telling Han Solo one thing while the audience realizes something else altogether – these two crazy kids are in love. Finally, just before it’s too late, she opens up, and while Han gets the iconic rebuttal, Leia flips the script in Return of the Jedi. This time, she’s caught up. She knows.

4. Huttslayer. I suspect a generation or two of Star Wars fans remember this moment for a different reason altogether. Carrie Fisher probably sent scores of moviegoers into puberty by donning the metal bikini, but a princess has to have an extensive wardrobe, right? What’s fascinating to me here is that it’s another way Leia flips the script. She steadfastly refuses to be a damsel in distress – recall that it’s all part of the plan – and her looks of disgust and occasional boredom prevent her from serving as eye candy. As ever, Carrie Fisher had the perfect response to the outfit: “Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.” The Expanded Universe materials have made much of Leia’s reputation as “the Huttslayer” – apparently, it’s a big deal to strangle a reptilian crime slug with the leash with which he would subjugate you. Now that’s a royally badass moment.

5. “Same jacket.” The original script for The Force Awakens called for us to see General Leia fairly early on and throughout the first act of the film. Wisely, though, J.J. Abrams kept her in reserve until we can see her through Han’s eyes for the first time. And boy, does it pack a wallop when she arrives; it’s a moment that always leaves me a little misty-eyed, but as ever Leia deflates the moment by skeptically remarking of Han’s attire, “Same jacket.” Thirty years may have passed, but she’s still the same Leia we left in 1983. The fact that she’s been promoted to general tells us only that the rest of the galaxy has finally caught up with her.

For now, she’s one with the Force, and the Force is with us. We’ll see her again in Episode VIII next December, and the Expanded Universe guarantees Princess Leia will never be too far away; she’s already appeared on Rebels, and she’s the star of the monthly Marvel comic Star Wars (to say nothing of her own miniseries, penned by Mark Waid). What’s your favorite Princess Leia moment? Sound off below.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fences (2016)

When I saw the trailer for Fences, I immediately thought three things – “I’ve got to read that play,” “I’ve got to see that movie,” and “Denzel ought to win an Oscar just for the trailer alone.” Now that I’ve seen Fences in its entirety, all three were – if I may say so – sage proclamations: August Wilson reminds us why he’s a compelling playwright, the film is worth the price of admission, and it’s going to be a tight race this year as Denzel Washington gives Andrew Garfield a run for his money.

Pulling directorial and performing duty, Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh trash collector who missed his shot as a professional baseball player and who fills his Friday afternoons with gab, both self-effacing and self-aware. From the kitchen window overlooking their backyard, Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) watches her larger-than-life husband and tries to make room for herself in the life they have built together.

I have a very short list of actors and directors who are guaranteed winners, always worth the price of admission even if the rest of the film isn’t very good. But Fences is very good, and it’s due almost universally to the powerful lead performances from Washington and Davis. I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed to see both up for their fair share of awards come Oscar season, and if they take home the trophies, so much the better. It comes as no surprise that Denzel Washington is the very picture of commanding; he’s one of a select few actors who can swing the pendulum from exuberantly gregarious to crushingly emotional without feeling anything but natural, and Troy Maxson is a perfect vehicle for Denzel to show us what he can do. Prone to long monologues, Troy is the consummate stage lead, and a less capable performer could have easily mishandled the complexities with which his character forces us to wrestle. Instead, Denzel is a master craftsman, and his discreet directorial style reminds one of a filmed stage play.

On the subject of the filmed stage play, this is Denzel’s third directorial outing (following Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters), and here’s the thing – it’s not all that cinematic. If you’re looking for a Denzel movie with visual flair, you might be better suited to something like John Q or American Gangster. It’s a slightly unusual moviegoing experience, watching something that feels very much like a Broadway drama on film, though it’s not unprecedented. For example, I’m a huge fan of the twin productions of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch, which currently only exist for a wide audience in a filmed-stage-play edition. For an audience primed for that – and for an audience who can’t go see the real thing in person (Denzel’s Fences was staged in 2010, while the Hamlets were overseas), it’s the next best thing. And if the only casualty of a filmed Denzel stage play is that it’s a little uncinematic, it’s a sacrifice I’m content to make, because the performances and the characters are so large and powerful that it escapes notice after a few minutes.

About halfway through the film, Rose tells Troy, “I’ve been standing here with you!” reminding him – and us – that this is her life, too, and in the same way Davis pivots the screen’s attention to her. In a film where Denzel Washington is playing such an unreserved character like Troy Maxson, it might be easy to fade into the backdrop, but Davis holds her own and gives a formidable performance, exuding emotion with a fierce glance of the eye or a despairing runny nose. So much of her performance is predicated on silences and pauses, and Davis (who was, in a word, definitive earlier this year in Suicide Squad) very nearly steals the show as the film pivots into its second half with a game-changing revelation about their marriage.

Theatrical in the stage sense of the word, Fences is nevertheless a must-see as 2016 wraps itself up and bends again toward award season. Featuring two lead performances from thespians at the pinnacle of their craft, and with an unexpected range of emotions on display, Fences is a tour de force that does every bit of justice imaginable to the August Wilson playtext.

Fences is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements, language and some suggestive references.” Directed by Denzel Washington. Screenplay by August Wilson from his stage play. Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, and Saniyya Sidney.

That’s going to bring a close to 2016, folks. Over the past twelve months, The Cinema King has brought you 40 movie reviews (with eight installments of “Monday at the Movies,” a series that began in 2012), seven Top 10 lists, one Grand Marvel Rewatch (with a baker's dozen installments), and one Personal Canon (consisting of 65 essential films). What does the future hold? 2017 will see the same great content coming your way, as well as a number of exciting new features. Starting in 2017, you’ll see one of the greatest television shows of all time recapped and reviewed, episode by episode, week by week. You’ll also see the debut of “Ten at a Time,” a series which treads methodically through particularly dense films ten minutes at a time; at that rate, the first such feature should take about four months to get through. You’ll see a number of other surprises coming your way, but we don’t want to pull back the curtain all at once... If you haven’t subscribed, make sure to put your email in the box at the top of the page to guarantee your weekly dose of movie magic. See you next year!

Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One (2016)

It’s Disney’s galaxy, folks; we just live in it. But as I’ve said over and over, now is the best time to be alive. We’ve got comic book superheroes on film and television, engaging as ever, and we’ve got a new Star Wars film coming out every year. And if they continue to be as good as Rogue One is, that’s reason enough to hold onto the planet for another rotation around the sun.

As the Empire nears completion of its mammoth Death Star weapon just before the events of the original Star Wars film, a band of Rebels led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid co-pilot K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) seeks out Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of the weapon’s chief engineer. While the Death Star’s military director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) grapples for power by proving the strength of his facility, Jyn bristles at the notion of joining the Rebellion but finds herself drawn into the struggle as she searches for her father.

If you’ve been around this long, you know I’m something of a shill when it comes to the genres I love. It’s not that these movies can do no wrong – I took Suicide Squad to task for biting off more than it could chew and for being “more than a little strangely crafted” – but maybe I’m a little more forgiving just because these are “my” genres, movies that feel made for me. But Rogue One is, I think, a great Star Wars movie that does everything a Star Wars movie ought to do. Since buying Lucasfilm lock, stock, and Greedo-shot-first barrel, Disney has been quite enamored of the Original Trilogy era, setting its television shows, comic books, novels, and now spin-off films in that period. But they’ve been equally keen on butting up against our sense of what Star Wars can be – that is, led by someone who isn’t a whiny blond dude, with next-to-no lightsaber combat.

Rogue One is both of those things, and more, depicting the run-up to A New Hope in a way that will forever color the way we look at the original film (answering in the process a question fans have had for about forty years in the process). But it does so in a way that deepens our understanding of the Star Wars mythos – at least, the post-Disney purge canon. Rogue One unites disparate elements from the Prequels, the Original Trilogy, Clone Wars and Rebels, from tie-in books like James Luceno’s Catalyst to what I’m pretty sure are a few weapons from the Lego Star Wars video games. We even, finally, get references to the mysterious Whills, referenced in early drafts of the screenplay and novelization to Star Wars. All of this, thankfully, is never beholden to an audience’s preexisting knowledge, serving instead like bonus frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum for those of us who have eyes trained to see them.

Because at its core, Rogue One is a film about a girl, her father, and the galaxy that finds itself depending quite unexpectedly on them. If you always thought the galaxy revolved around the Skywalkers, Rogue One asks you to look again; there’s only one Skywalker here, but as I predicted last week he’s treated like an ominous specter at the periphery of this story, the armor-plated embodiment of fury waiting for an excuse to unleash his hate. By and large, though, Rogue One is more interested in its scrappy band of Rebels, new characters all, some of whom are bound to become new fan favorites. K-2SO’s deadpan cynicism recalls a kind of killer Baymax, while the warrior duo of Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, my personal fave) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) shed light on the Force from the vantage point of someone who isn’t a Jedi.

Amid all the fresh new characters who I’d gladly follow into spin-offs of their own, though, Rogue One is thoroughly Felicity Jones’s show. Although some have drawn superficial lines between Jyn Erso and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, Jones does a fabulous job differentiating her character from the one found in The Force Awakens. There’s an unexpected emotional depth to Jyn, which Jones lets us see Jyn has repressed for so very long. She lets it burble over every so often, to great effect, and we never have a hard time believing that the tough persona she puts on in front of the other Rebels is just a defensive mechanism.

On the subject of the film’s villains, I will say that my first impression of Orson Krennic is that he’s a little undercooked. I have the disadvantage of having read the prequel novel before the film, so I know him a little better than most filmgoers, but his motivations and rank in the Empire might have been made clearer. Mendelsohn does a good job turning Krennic into a snarling power-hungry Imperial middleman, but as it is, Krennic takes a backseat to the Empire at large. Here the Empire is a giant and well-oiled machine, whose hold over the galaxy is more intimidating than any one figure could be. Then again, how daunting can an Imperial be in a film with Darth Vader? As the trailers have hinted, Krennic has a very memorable scene with Vader which puts Krennic in perspective relative to the Imperial machine he serves. Still, there’s a more personal story to be told, considering Krennic’s long history with the Erso family.

It wouldn’t be a Cinema King review without a wild comparison or two, and so I offer that Rogue One is very much akin to Captain America: The First Avenger. We knew where both films would end up – Darth Vader tells us as much in Star Wars, while we knew Cap was going to end up on ice, only to be thawed out in time for The Avengers. But just because the ending is a foregone conclusion, an accidental spoiler forty years in the making, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun along the way, in a movie that feels more heartfelt than you might expect, given that at least a few of our heroes might have a tragic fate bearing down on them. There’s room for a few surprises along the way, but more importantly Rogue One clicks up with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in its personification of the quintessentially human emotion of hope. Both films, even as things look quite grim, find room for optimism, for persistence in the face of adversity because “men are still good” and “rebellions are built on hope.” It’s always darkest before the dawn, we recall from an earlier Batman film, but the dawn – or in this case, the new hope – is coming.

And for moviegoers, it isn’t all that essential to hope that the Star Wars franchise continues to thrive under the gloved thumb of the Mouse. Mickey’s two-for-two. The Force is truly with us.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy and John Knoll & Gary Whitta. Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, and James Earl Jones.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Top 10 Things I’m Looking Forward to in Rogue One

2016 has been a pretty good year so far for us moviegoers, and it’s about to go out with a bang. We still have a few flicks that yours truly is looking forward to seeing: Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited Silence, classic Hollywood romance La La Land, Passengers, Assassins Creed, and Denzel Washington’s adaptation of Fences.

But Disney has seen to it that we won’t get to the end of the calendar year without talking about Star Wars. This Friday sees the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a mid-pre-sequel situated some time after Revenge of the Sith but just before A New Hope, in which the construction of the Death Star nears completion as a band of Rebels seek to steal the plans and look for a vulnerability.

Episode VIII, it’s not, but as much as I’m dying to return to that hilltop to see what Rey and Luke will say to each other, there’s plenty about which to be excited for Rogue One. And so, in the tradition of last year’s post to a similar point, here’s my “Top 10 Things I’m Looking Forward to in Rogue One.”

10. Politics in a galaxy far, far away. As much as we’re all wearied by the proceedings of Election 2016 and any number of high-stakes electoral proceedings this year, Lucasfilm’s Creative Executive Pablo Hidalgo pointed to the above scene aboard the Death Star in A New Hope as key to Rogue One. As rich as the clip is in terms of Star Wars lore, one major plot point is that the Emperor has only just gotten around to disbanding the Senate, meaning it’s open season in Rogue One. Will this film’s events be the ones that push Palpatine to finally erase the last pretenses of democracy in his Empire?

9. And speaking of politicians... You won’t see Donald and Hillary in Rogue One (thank the maker), but you’ll see a few familiar faces from the Prequel Trilogy – Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly). The Force Awakens largely steered clear of the still-radioactive prequels, but Rogue One seems to be embracing the parts that worked, namely the good casting in Revenge of the Sith. And with Bail Organa in tow, can a certain cinnamon-bunned princess or her prissy goldenrod protocol droid be far behind...?

8. Ground combat. The Force Awakens delivered on its aerial dogfights (and how) with hotshot pilot Poe Dameron leading Resistance forces, but we haven’t really seen sustained fighting on the ground in the Star Wars universe since The Empire Strikes Back – and we all remember how well that worked out for the Rebels. (And no, the Ewok ambushes don’t quite count.) With Rogue One said to inhabit a kind of WWII vibe, seeing ground assault troops and the AT-ATs glimpsed in the movie’s trailers, this could get ugly in a very beautiful kind of way.

7. Snarky droid. K-2SO looks to be a mean and sassy droid, comfortable with deadpan assertions of impending doom and honest appraisals of nihilistic futility. He’s voiced by Alan Tudyk, who (if you only know him as Wash from Firefly) has quietly become one of Disney’s premier voiceover artists with memorable turns in Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia, and even as the demented chicken Heihei in Moana. If all goes well, Tudyk could turn K-2SO into a wry reflection of C-3PO.

6. Inside baseball. Even though Rogue One is something of a standalone film, it’s almost a guarantee that the filmmakers will draw connections both forward and back. There’s the return of the Prequel faces (see #9) and at least one major character from the Original Trilogy (read on...), but with storytelling being a unified venture at Lucasfilm across film, television, and publishing, I wonder what other familiar faces we might see. Does the appearance of Saw Gerrera from The Clone Wars suggest we’ll touch base with something from Star Wars Rebels, which is set in roughly the same time period and also deals indirectly with the construction of the Death Star? Will we foreshadow some famous faces, the longest shot being Alden Ehrenreich’s young Han Solo? Or will Rogue One stake out its own territory, leaving these toys in the box for appearances in future comics, novels, and films?

5. Director Krennic. Now, I haven’t finished reading the prequel novel Catalyst just yet, but from what I’ve read Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) is going to be a compelling new kind of Imperial. Less a believer in the Emperor’s endgame and more a relentless opportunist with a disdain for his fellow Imperials, Krennic promises to be vastly different from the cold and calculating Tarkin (who’s rumored to appear, as well). How precisely he fits in – or doesn’t – with Imperial hierarchy ought to be fascinating stuff. And let’s face it, this is a guy who looks ready-made to be Force-choked for his failures. (Remember, he’s not at the table in A New Hope.)

4. I have a bad feeling about this... With the persistent refrain that this film ends about ten minutes before A New Hope, we can’t help but wonder how many of these characters are going to make it out alive. It’s a big galaxy, and there’s plenty of room for them to hide out to explain their absence in the Original Trilogy, but I can’t believe that the Imperials make it all the way to the Tantive IV without making sure that the plans could only be in Leia’s hands: all of which doesn’t bode well for our scrappy band of rebels.

3. One “Rogue” in particular. We’re getting a real motley crew for Rogue One, but the standout role looks to be that of protagonist Jyn Erso. She’s going to be a different breed of Star Wars heroine, more cynical a Rebel than Princess Leia, tougher than Rey, and with more family baggage than Padmé Amidala. Plus we have an Oscar nominee in Felicity Jones, so the character is in good hands, ready for a journey of galactic proportions.

2. Michael Giacchino’s score. The Clone Wars and The Holiday Special don’t count – this is the first Star Wars film not scored by the maestro himself, John Williams. But Michael Giacchino is just about the best possible successor I could imagine; his work relies on motifs and melodies in a very Star Wars-ian way, and he’s already followed in Williams’s footsteps on Jurassic World. Giacchino has proven himself versatile and gifted, and while I’m excited any time I see Giacchino’s name on a score, Rogue One compounds my interest. How much will he borrow from Williams’s operatic book of themes, and how much will he innovate? Will we see his trademark puns on the soundtrack titles?

1. Hcho-peh... hcho-peh... hcho-peh. You might not recognize it when I type it out, but you’ll know it when you hear it – Rogue One is bringing back the heavy-breathing, black-clad Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader. While it remains to be seen whether he’ll be seeking the Rebel base, hunting down the stolen Death Star plans, or both, the original Man in Black is back. Here’s hoping director Gareth Edwards treats Vader like he depicted Godzilla – sparingly, obliquely, and terrifyingly powerful.

How about it, folks? What are you most excited to see in Rogue One? We’ll see you back here next week for a look at Rogue One. Until then, may the Force be with you.