Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)


I fucking love Blade Runner. I first saw the original 1982 theatrical cut on VHS in the mid-1980s. That version intrigued me a lot, and haunted me, even though I didn't like the clumsy Harrison Ford voice-overs and weirdly upbeat ending. To be fair, I first came at Blade Runner with little understanding of film noir. Instead, I'd recently seen other fast-paced Ford vehicles like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. In contrast to these, Blade Runner felt slow and weird, but I still liked it. Its three principal characters -- Deckard, Roy, and Rachel -- stuck with me.

I happened to be living in Los Angeles in 1992 when the so-called "Director's Cut" of Blade Runner was discovered in a vault and screened at the Nuart Theater. That's when my true Blade Runner fandom began. That new version appeared just at the right time for me as a developing cinephile. I had started watching independent cinema, stuff like Do the Right ThingSlacker, Reservoir Dogs, and sex, lies and videotape, so I was ready for a visually arty, downbeat, science-fictional neo-noir to sweep me away. Indeed, that cut of Blade Runner (and the essentially identical 2007 "Final Cut") remains one of my all-time favorite movies, even though I am made uncomfortable by the coercive nature of Deckard and Rachel's sex scene. I realize the dynamics of the scene are complicated by their both being replicants -- or maybe only Rachel being a replicant -- but it disturbs me. Nevertheless, I love Blade Runner. (I also love the Alien universe, so Ridley Scott has pulled me in twice.)

So I looked forward to seeing Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049. I went last weekend assuming I would like it and I did, very much. In my recent review of It I state that film is about 80% what I would want to see in an It movie. I mean that as high praise. I would say that Blade Runner 2049 is about 94% what I would want to see in a Blade Runner sequel.

The film often -- but not always -- touches on the mesmerizing quality that makes Ridley Scott's original so special. As with the noir-inspired original, Blade Runner 2049's main strengths are its beautifully lit visuals of grimy, lived-in settings and its overall melancholic tone.

Sure, Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2014) is a more compelling thematic follow-up to Blade Runner and is its true "spiritual sequel" ideas-wise. But Villeneuve's 2049 gets the tone and visuals dead right and introduces the reproducing replicant motif, a logical next step for the franchise that takes the story in an interesting, Pinocchio-like direction. And 2049 ends really well -- both its blade runners get superb final scenes and shots.

Although it ends with a haunting close-up of Deckard, 2049 features minimal -- just enough -- Harrison Ford. It's the new characters' show. Ryan Gosling is pitch-perfect as protagonist "K" aka Joe -- a strong silent type who is nevertheless more emotionally vulnerable than Deckard ever was (or is). Supporting cast members Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Ana de Armas as Joi, and Robin Wright as Lieutenant Joshi (who I really thought was going to pull one more trick out of her hat before getting brutally murdered -- alas) are also especially good.

2049 does right to stay focused on Joe's present-day story, only bringing in Deckard when he becomes relevant to the mystery Joe is trying to solve. Indeed, too much emphasis on legacy characters weakens Star Wars and accounts for  2049's most awkward and least necessary scene: Niander Wallace's unsuccessful tempting of Deckard with Rachel 2.0.

There is no point to the Rachel 2.0 scene -- we know Deckard would never go for this ruse, and the use of computer generated imagery (CGI) to re-create a circa-1982 Sean Young looks, as CGI Peter Cushing in Star Wars Rogue One looks, uncanny, cheap, and (therefore) jarring.

Rachel sez: "Sorry folks, I should never have been in this sequel." 

2049's other main weak point is its almost comically underdeveloped depiction of an underground replicant revolutionary force. That scene only takes place to "explain" how Joe escapes Las Vegas, and there's a million other ways to do that -- he could just hijack some other vehicle from around Deckard's lair. Or the Wallace mercenaries could haul Joe back to L.A. along with Deckard, and Joe could escape at that point. Or he could be taken in the very same airport transport as Deckard, and would end up at the same climactic fight. The thing the rebellion leader tells Joe about his origin is something he could realize on his own -- he already suspects it before that dumb scene.

Deckard being tempted and Joe being rescued by an anonymous replicant resistance movement are stupid and unnecessary scenes. 2049 should just cut from Deckard being taken away in Vegas to "K" commandeering a new vehicle and pursuing him. No Ford / Leto meeting needed. The CGI Sean Young reveal is hackneyed in the film world and the real one.

I have been a Blade Runner fan since 1992 and was likely to want to see this sequel in any case. Yet the stellar track records of Denis Villeneuve, 2049's director, and Roger Deakins, its cinematographer, strongly contributed to my anticipation to see it. Villeneuve has made several excellent films over the past several years, including Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and my favorite, his recent science-fiction film Arrival (2016). Deakins has worked with the Coen brothers since 1997, when he shot Fargo. He shot Prisoners and Sicario for Villeneuve. He also lensed the James Bond film Skyfall in 2012. He utterly rocks.

Is Blade Runner 2049 slow paced? Yes, of course it is. Like the original, 2049 is a bleak, moody, science-fiction film noir -- it is NOT an action film. There are basically two fights, two swift stabbings, and one extremely brief flying car chase. That's it -- the rest of 2049's two hour forty minute running time is people talking to each other on amazingly-lit and -designed sets. Don't expect much action, but expect a visually stunning, fully developed world of the future.

And expect me to crush people.  



UPDATE 10/28/2017: After reading my review, one of my friends noted on Facebook that she enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 too but had "some questions about Joi." Indeed, I share her concerns over the sexism of both the original Blade Runner -- the roughness of the Deckard-Rachel love scene has always disturbed me -- and its sequel. Honestly, I agree with everything Lauren Jernigan says in her penetrating article about the pervasive sexism of 2049. She writes: 
Joi has very little, if any, true agency as a character. She’s a programmed hologram that will be whatever K needs her to be, so he has his perfect fantasy woman. She is a literal product designed for the happiness of men.
Agreed. Like Jernigan, I find the sex scene with K, Joi, and her hired body double to be quite unnerving. Is this the film's way of critiquing this situation by making me feel unnerved and uncomfortable with it? Or is the film simply reinforcing the role of women as objects of desire for men? It's hard to tell. 

In defense of my Blade Runner fandom I can only say that film noir presents a strange case: it is so highly stylized and hyperbolic that I think it is possible to read the genre's abysmal treatment of women as a critique of patriarchal violence. But it is an ambivalent, ambiguous case, and there is no doubt that noirs like the Blade Runner films portray women as "only there to help move the story of men forward, rather than act as protagonists in their own right in a story very much about oppression against them," as Jernigan correctly asserts.

UPDATE 11/8/2017: I also found this piece by Joseph Aisenberg to offer an insightful interpretation of Blade Runner 2049. "Morose and morbidly meditative in tone, it gnaws around the edges of the assumptions underlying its plot mechanics, giving viewers time to think through the fakery in its themes about fakery versus authenticity."

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review: Stephen King's It (2017)


I saw It and I mostly really enjoyed it. I am a fan of Stephen King's original novel -- I think it is his best work -- and feel that despite a couple of sad blunders, the recent film adaptation (which its closing credits make clear constitutes "Chapter 1" of a presumed two-parter) is about 80% what I would want to see out of an adaptation of a horror epic this nuanced and great. I would probably even watch it again someday, and I intend to see the sequel. My review:

The good:
  • The overall tone. As AV Club's Katie Rife astutely notes, the visuals are particularly excellent: "Cinematography from Chung Chung-hoon, Park Chan-wook’s longtime DP, gives the film a richness and texture that’s far beyond that of most Hollywood films, let alone horror films."
  • The casting, especially Finn Wolfhard as Richie -- of whom Andrew Barker writes, "Wolfhard all but steals the show as the gang’s cheerful antagonist Richie" -- and Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. My biggest concern going in was my deep love of Tim Curry's iconic portrayal of the killer clown in the 1990 TV-miniseries version of It -- the great character actor is basically the best thing in a generally mediocre movie. The new remake is thankfully a better movie and Skarsgard is terrific in the role, not as great as Curry but very scary and amusing if a bit over-exposed: "The more we see of him, the less scary he becomes" Chris Nashawaty correctly deduces.

The bad:
  • The sexist "Beverly used as bait" problem, as well documented by Jackie Perez, who writes that "Beverly is stripped of her power and equality when she’s taken by Pennywise the clown in order to propel the six boys into the sewers to rescue her. The tired and sexist trope of using female weakness to show male strength goes directly against everything Beverly stood for in the book." Indeed, I found the kidnapping subplot to be the movie's absolute low point -- it is both sexist and too narratively boring and overused. Why not just have the Losers including Beverly head down to the sewers to defeat It, for which they already have more than sufficient motivation at that point? Why does Pennywise even choose Beverly? He always seemed most interested in Bill. 

  • The needless backgrounding of Mike Hanlon, the Losers' Club's sole black member. When It downplays Mike's character and role, it omits the complex racial history of Derry and the racism Mike experiences -- he is bullied by villain Henry Bowers but the racial motivations for it are sidestepped. As Kristen Yoonsoo Kim writes, "the racism that Mike faces is so watered down that he loses some of the individual purpose in the kids’ fight against evil." Indeed so. For example, why does Henry never utter the word "nigger" when tormenting Mike? Especially in these troubled (real-life) times, when open racism is a constant front-page issue, the film's choice to avoid that word feels out of place and weird -- an omission that causes more discomfort and dissonance through its absence than it would if the film just went for it and told the truth. 

  • Furthermore, regarding the gratuitous flattening and marginalizing of Mike in this movie, why does Ben Hanscomb need to take over Mike's researcher role? Can't a black kid be a smart kid in American cinema? Besides, likable though he is, Ben doesn't need more to do -- he has his hands full with the film's amplified Bill - Beverly - Ben love triangle.
  • The film's amplified Bill - Beverly - Ben love triangle. This stems from the film too weirdly sexualizing Beverly. For while foregrounding her sexual nature allows for some Carrie-esque moments in the bathroom sequences, it kind of ruins the dynamics of the kid Losers in the film. Instead of fitting in with the guys as a tomboy, Bev becomes a highly sexualized object of desire from the get-go. My memory is that in the novel, Ben's feelings for Bev don't really come out into the open until the adult phase of the action. Am I mis-remembering that?

The strange:

In the theater where I saw It, it opened with video footage of Stephen King in a neutral studio setting introducing the film and saying how blown away he was by director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of his favorite work. Now I love Stephen King, both as a pulp author and as an irascible left-centrist public figure, but he seemed downright awkward in this introduction video. He was clearly reading from a teleprompter -- I could see his eyes reading and I think I saw the teleprompter screen reflected in his glasses.

King has always had a fraught relationship with film adaptations of his books, famously despising the very best one, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), even making a TV miniseries version in 1997 as a kind of public "I'm taking it back" gesture. And as A.O. Scott notes, a great many King adaptations are mediocre or worse, so maybe this isn't a very high bar. But it was interesting to me that someone took the time to film this footage of King and place it up front -- King subtly asserting his authorship? A precautionary measure to assure audiences this isn't another Dark Tower (2017) fiasco?

Anyway, horror fans or King fans should go see this film. It is fun and mostly scary, though a couple of the clown attacks are so over-the-top as to be silly rather than convincing (including, IMO, the first one). The final battle is, as Scott correctly states, boring and unaffecting: "The climactic sequence of It sacrifices horror-movie creepiness for action-movie bombast." And obviously, as I've said, big sexism and racism alert. But It is worth your time for the cinematography, a few scares, and Richie's one-liners alone.

Richie sez: "If you don't like this movie you can fuck off!"

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Franchises, Fandom, and Film Criticism

It is hard for me to write about films of which I am not a fan. I can do it, and sometimes I have produced good analytical papers by doing so, but here on the blog I mainly post about films toward which I am positively inclined.

This truism partly explains why I have been so slow to complete my promised review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I want to get that piece out there, but it is more an intellectual goal than a passion project. I want to review a Star Wars prequel to show I'm a good sport and to inoculate myself against accusations of bias against them. But the truth is, I am biased: as a movie fan, I loathe and despise all three prequels.

Winchester: "I loathe you, Pierce."
Pierce: "I call your loathe and raise you two despises."

Conversely, I noticed recently that there are certain film-worlds I simply enjoy inhabiting and will take the opportunity to visit them even via relatively mediocre movies, e.g., the Tron universe or G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) or anything involving the Fantastic Four. Then there are other cinematic universes, like that of the X-Men, that I don't find too compelling. I enjoyed X-Men: First Class (2011), for example, but I cannot rally the enthusiasm to make it all the way through Days of Future Past (2014). It's a perfectly well-crafted movie, and if I were really into the X-Men I would probably love it, but I am not invested and no X-Men movie, no matter how good, has much re-watch value for me. Maybe I am just Wolverine-fatigued?

Owen Gleiberman wrote a recent piece that gets to the heart of this issue. Ostensibly about his disappointment with Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Alien Covenant, the article notes that
Franchises are the basic commercial architecture on which the movie business now rests, so the whole culture — audiences, critics, the industry — has a vested interest in viewing this situation without cynicism.
That is, the way the film industry is structured right now encourages viewers to buy into a whole different kind of movie -- the intertextual franchise entry -- than existed in the recent past. According to Gleiberman, our experience of sequels and franchises has shifted since the blockbuster era began in the 1980s:
One of the reasons the word “franchise” passed from industry talk to a colloquial term is that it sounds strong and powerful. You’re not just seeing a movie, you’re glimpsing a part of something larger. You’re not just watching it, you’re joining it. 
This "joining" with something larger can be great fun, and explains my enjoyment of the G.I. Joe films, yet sometimes I just want to see a well-made movie that isn't hyperlinked to a bunch of other stuff. As I said in my review, part of what makes Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman so refreshing is that, whatever its internal flaws, it mostly feels like its own movie, even if you can tell from its overuse of slo-mo combat sequences that it is part of the "DC Universe" and that Zack Snyder vaguely oversaw its production.

I ultimately advocate for both experiences. It can be fun to immerse oneself in a franchise-universe that you enjoy, and this kind of fandom creates a special relationship to (at least certain) films in the franchise, e.g., my love of Prometheus. Yet as Gleiberman suggests, "it can be healthy to return to the mindset of the ’80s and remind yourself that a sequel is often just a sequel: a movie that has no organic reason for being, even if it pretends otherwise." Agreed.

I greatly enjoy hanging out in the Alien universe, and absolutely loved Alien Covenant, but I totally agree with Gleiberman when he says that "the thing that can’t be recaptured, even by director Ridley Scott, is the essence of the original 1979 Alien: the sense of revelation, of seeing a monster that immerses the audience in transcendent horror." I agree. Yet as a committed fan of the Alien franchise, I don't go into Prometheus or Covenant expecting to relive the greatness of the original film. I go in wanting simply to hang out in that world some more.

Still, there are limits and contours to my Alien franchise fandom. For example, I find the abominable Alien Resurrection (1997) all but unwatchable. I re-watch Alien and Prometheus much more often than I do James Cameron's generally excellent Aliens (1986). And I am currently enjoying Ridley Scott's run of Alien prequels quite a bit -- see this EW review for a gloss of what I think of Covenant.

I have written about movie fandom before -- maybe the best thing I came up with (besides the catch phrase "Fuck the Tomatometer") is that "holistic film criticism is always colored by the history, tastes, predilections, hatreds, and fandoms of the individual reviewer." In saying that I am echoing Gamasutra's Katherine Cross, who writes that criticism is "the product of a gut reaction; it is a melange of values, emphasis, and personal judgement. It can never be objective."

To the extent to which that is true, criticism and fandom are somewhat inextricable. Yet it is the critic's job to be as clear as possible about their fandoms and leanings so that the reader can have some kind of barometer to use in evaluating the critic's work.

This means being able to talk about fandom -- a kind of gut-level, euphoric, gushy thing -- in concrete terms. I've been thinking that fandom has a few different levels:
  • casual fandom, describing someone who will remain loyal to a franchise or genre or star in a vague way, but doesn't get too wrapped up in the deep mythology or details
  • fandom proper, which exists in a big range but includes a certain loyalty to a brand, studio, star, director, franchise, starring character, etc. Often the true fan tries to protect what they see as the canon of their preferred genres and franchises, and probably has some apocryphal knowledge
  • crazy-assed fandom that is so specific and particular that it destroys the fan's ability to enjoy a thing transposed into another medium or changed in the "wrong" way
I have this last thing with Lord of the Rings. I love the original J.R.R. Tolkien books so much, and they were so deeply influential upon me at an early age, that for me no film version of those works has ever really come close to the version I have in my mind. I find the Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings (1978) watchable, and Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) passable, but I guess I will always be swayed by my abiding fandom of those novels. Of course, the Rankin and Bass animated The Hobbit (1977) is an exception to this rule, since it is a brilliant and beautiful work of genius that is utterly enjoyable on its own merits, especially its delightful songs.

This is not to say that Jackson's Rings movies aren't good movies in some more objective sense -- though they do get worse as they go, especially screenplay-wise -- but simply that I will probably never love them the way many fans do. As a critic, I can see their positive qualities (e.g., high production values, great casting and visuals), even though I can also see the concrete reasons (e.g., contrived dialogue, shitty characterizations, numbingly bombastic battle sequences) that make at least the second two entries completely unappealing to me. My loyalty to the books plays a key role in how I respond as a viewer, and I acknowledge this in my criticism, but I also have legitimate critiques of the Lord of the Rings films themselves. I am a fan and a critic.

In "Hollywood Blames Critics for Its Movies Being Unimaginative Pieces of Shit," The Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon observes that
When a film like Get Out or Hidden Figures skyrockets to surprise box office success on the fuel of critics’ raves, it’s a credit to the value of positive reviews. But if a well-reviewed film is a box office bomb, then it’s used to argue that they don’t matter. What’s interesting, though, is how often critics and general audiences’ tastes align.
Indeed. Gleiberman echoes this sentiment in his article on superhero movie fandom, writing that "1) Critics are fans. 2) Fans are critics." As Gleiberman concludes:
Take the all-too-relevant issue of critics and comic-book movies. Do we critics reflexively dislike them? No. Do we sometimes dislike them? Yes. Do fans of comic-book movies agree with us? More often than not, I would say…yes. Four years from now, will people be talking about what a kickass movie Suicide Squad was? Prediction: Not really.
But all of us, critic-fans and fan-critics alike, will continue to passionately debate the films, franchises, and pop cultural loyalties we enjoy, nurture, refuse, and resist. The best thing we can do is to articulate these positions clearly and be as respectful as possible in how we communicate our ideas and passions.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Shark Lake (2015) vs. Sharktopus (2010)

Eric Roberts, one of the best things about Sharktopus. 

This post is an (only very slightly) enhanced take on ideas I first hashed out here. I mainly posted this revised version to set the stage for an upcoming Shark Attack Movie Roundup! and because I had a few more things to say about Shark Lake (2015) and Sharktopus (2010).

Sara Malakul Lane as Deputy Hernandez, the protagonist of Shark Lake. I'd show you a shot of the shark but it might deter you from wanting to see the film.

Shark Lake is a low-budget B-movie which features top-billed Dolph Lundgren in about four short scenes. The rest of the movie is carried by Sara Malakul Lane as sheriff's deputy Meredith Hernandez. She is compelling and some of the film's attack sequences -- especially an early one involving an old man -- are pretty amusing. But the special effects are pure shit, and therefore, despite its promising title, the shark is the least goddamned interesting thing in this shark movie. I don't inherently mind fakey or cheap special effects, but in a film-world that purports to be dealing with "real" sharks, bad effects can really ruin it. (As we'll see, I am much more tolerant of shoddy, obvious CGI when it is used to convey the weird and fantastical as in Sharktopus.)

The best stuff in Shark Lake includes the pub scene when Hernandez tells her adoptive daughter Carly that one of her nine-year old schoolmates is sexist, and the witty banter that subsequently ensues between Hernandez and oceanography nerd Peter (Michael Aaron Milligan). It's also fun to watch Lundgren growl his way through a few incomprehensible scenes late in the movie. But it is a weakness to make a shark attack movie in which the shark attack scenes are by far the worst part.

Overall, Shark Lake is one of those "so bad it's good" entries. While the acting is pretty good, the film's badness mostly stems from its bargain-basement special effects and some very odd plot turns near the end. Nonetheless I would call Shark Lake a very enjoyable low-budget shark attack film. Bear in mind that I am both a low-budget shark movie junkie and an ardent fan of The Room.

You guessed it: Sharktopus. Yes, they're on dry land.

Malakul Lane, who does such a noble job propping up Shark Lake, goes underused in the otherwise delightful Sharktopus. Eric Roberts basically steals the movie from its ostensible leads, and the sharktopus creature's visual appearance and attack scenes are much more satisfying than similar ones in the generally less overblown Shark Lake. Indeed, Sharktopus as a whole is great fun, in part because it is great fun to watch a huge shark / octopus hybrid crawl up onto dry land, roar, and kill people.

Sadly, in Sharktopus, Malakul Lane is relegated to being an especially drab embodiment of the "babe scientist" stereotype I discuss in my review of Doctor Strange. She spends a lot of time sitting in the back of a motorboat, silently typing at a laptop computer. This is disappointing given that she is given much more to do -- and therefore more character depth -- as the protagonist of Shark Lake.

One of the least thrilling aspects of the generally action-packed Sharktopus.

Shark Lake vs. Sharktopus: despite plot confusion and rock-bottom shitty monster effects, Shark Lake has much better dramatic sequences than does Sharktopus. The strengths of Sharktopus are its awesome attack sequences, especially since the creature can climb up on land and remain there for several minutes at a time. And again, Eric Roberts.

Both films are exploitative and crass, but Sharktopus is more so. Take, for example, an early dark-comic scene in which Roger Corman himself cameos as an elderly beachcomber who watches a woman get brutally killed by the sharktopus. He looks on impassively, watches her die, shrugs, steals the now-dead woman's prized coin off the beach, and walks away. Despite some gratuitous ass shots in a couple beach party scenes, there is no comparable scene of death being treated so lightly in Shark Lake.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman (2017)


Wonder Woman is a big-budget superhero movie, and despite a couple of clever comments Diana (Gal Gadot) makes near the end about heroes being unable to solve complex problems like war and human corruption, it is fundamentally an earnest one rather than a deconstructive one. That is, it feels like it could have been made ten years ago, and probably it would have felt fresher then, situated among other straightforward origin stories like Iron Man (2008) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

This is not Wonder Woman's fault -- Hollywood has dragged so much goddamned ass finally making an A-grade female-led superhero film that it beggars belief. We have been waiting for a Wonder Woman movie for so many years, even decades, and our having to wait this long for a movie centered on such an iconic character is glaring evidence of Hollywood's deep and pervasive structural sexism.

But the movie is finally here now, and it is a lot of fun. Like all superhero films, Wonder Woman takes its cues from the blockbuster writ large, inheriting its DNA from the 1980s Spielberg-Lucas template. So like any big-budget action-adventure film made in the wake of Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Wonder Woman is entirely predictable. There are no surprises or revelations here -- we've seen all this before.

However, that said, Wonder Woman is well-executed and possesses a few key strengths that make it a pleasure to watch:
  • a very likable, positive, and non-brooding protagonist
  • a particularly game and enjoyable supporting cast, especially Chris Pine as Steve Trevor -- Gadot and Pine exhibit delightful onscreen chemistry
  • minimal (though some) running-time bloat and (thank god) minimal crossover exposition -- no distracting Superman or Batman cameos here
That first item is the most important and is what sets this film apart from all the others in the recent DC Universe franchise.* I am sick to death of dark, tortured protagonists in action-adventure blockbusters so when I heard that Wonder Woman was not going that route, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Wonder Woman's Diana is not quite so upbeat and booster-ish as Christopher Reeve's Superman or Melissa Benoist's Supergirl, but she abides in that general area -- grimly determined but not grim, and generally optimistic about human potential and the human spirit. I like superheroes like that.


Teamed up with Gadot as Diana is Chris Pine (a personal favorite) as Steve Trevor. He is a delight and his chemistry with Gadot is spot-on. I agree with AV Club's A.A. Dowd that
Pine, with his square-jawed deadpan, bounces nicely off of Gadot’s tourist curiosity; the two actors have a chemistry of innuendo and hesitant camaraderie—the makings of a screwball romantic comedy, simmering around the edges of the story.
Indeed, I wouldn't have minded if the Diana-Steve duo spent a little more time in London exchanging banter and having fun with Etta (a hilarious Lucy Davis) before slogging into the whole combat mission. But this is a blockbuster, there are action beats to get to, I get it. As Dowd puts it, "One just wishes [director Patty Jenkins] were working outside of a house style not already etched in stone." Hear, hear.

At least Wonder Woman avoids annoying franchise hyperlinks that distract from the story at hand. Recall the marred ending of Winter Soldier, about which I have written:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was okay but should have ended right when Cap comes ashore at the lakeside after the film's climactic battle. Everything else after that is franchise-connection filler and is superfluous to this movie. 
Sure, Wonder Woman has a brief frame story in which Diana (in the present day) receives a note and photograph from "Wayne Enterprises" and subsequently sends an email message back to "Bruce Wayne." But there is no pointless cameo by any other DC franchise character or some out-of-context teaser for the upcoming Justice League movie, in which Diana will also appear.** So hearty kudos to Wonder Woman for simply being its own movie, an increasing rarity in today's franchise-dominated blockbuster world.

To characterize it in the terms fleshed out in this postWonder Woman is a simple, generic blockbuster.

Wonder Woman hangs out on the top left with blockbusters like The Avengers (2012). 

Simple blockbusters, indicating the simplicity of their plots, "make pretty clear from the get-go what is at stake" and "do not depend upon mystery or surprise." There is only one major "surprise reveal" of a character's true identity near the end of Wonder Woman, and if you don't see that coming from leagues away, then god help you. No, Diana sets off from Themyscira to do a certain thing, and by the end of the movie she does exactly that.

Generic blockbusters, referring to genre and style, are "films that adhere more closely to the established parameters of their genre, with less evident authorial flourishes or deviations in tone or visual aesthetics." In this context we have to see genre in terms of franchise and branding as well. I would describe Wonder Woman as a generic superhero blockbuster in the Warner Brothers / DC post-Nolan, Zack Snyder-ish style.  There's slo-mo combat, there's a big boss villain, there are super-weapons, there are parent / child things being worked out, etc.

If Wonder Woman has noticeable flaws, they are:
  • a too-long running time and a pointless and boring final battle -- the film is emotionally over about twenty minutes before it concludes, around the time Diana confronts Ludendorff and then Steve Trevor on the elevated tower near the airstrip. 
  • some incomprehensible, sloppily choreographed and/or shot action sequences, especially during Diana's early training. This is not unique to Wonder Woman -- pretty much all superhero films and blockbusters follow "Chaos cinema" aesthetics in their action sequences these days -- but it is still unfortunate.
That said, some of the slow motion in the action sequences, used more judiciously by Jenkins than it is in the Zack Snyder-directed movies I've seen, works really well, creating a kind of comic book panel or splash page type effect. Combined with this, Gadot, for me, possesses the physicality, prowess, and aura to really pull off this role. For me, her Diana in Wonder Woman is as visually iconic as Christopher Reeve in Superman (1978) -- I mean that as a supremely positive comment.  

In his review, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty compliments Gadot's "undeniable star power" and accurately describes Wonder Woman as "assured and sly." He writes that Gadot's Diana "is both awesomely fierce and surprisingly funny" and "her chemistry with Pine is just as unexpected and electric." I agree with these points and with the overall conclusions of that review.

And importantly, as Dowd and others have noted, despite the shortness of her skirt-thingy and a few gratuitous bare-leg shots, the film mostly resists sexually objectifying Diana, thank christ. It's sad that the bar is so low that we are relieved simply when a mainstream film doesn't objectify or ogle its female characters, but there you have it.

She usually looks more like this. 

In short, definitely see Wonder Woman if you like enjoyable blockbuster action movies. This one won't condescend to you. It will provide "sly and assured" entertainment and action thrills, Diana's assault on the village of Veld being my favorite instance of the latter. I also really enjoyed the brief alley fight that happens in London. Diana's whip, weapons, and style are cool, and the film's climactic message, while entirely corny, is the sort of popcornish thing I want to hear at this time of year and in these troubled times. That Wonder Woman's message of love comes from the lips of Hollywood blockbuster cinema's first bona fide female stand-alone superhero franchise protagonist is, I think, cause for celebration. Long live Diana, Princess of the Amazons.


UPDATE 6/5/2017: Please read this feminist critique of the film by Nerds of Color's N'jaila Rhee and consider also this more deprecatory feminist analysis by Slate.com's Christina Cauterucci.

UPDATE 6/9/2017: For even more nuanced discussion of the feminist implications of Wonder Woman, read Noah Berlatsky's incisive rundown of how the film fails to acknowledge -- and even works against -- the "sisterhood" elements of the original comics, and also this smart dialogue between Carolyn Petit and Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency.

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* Note that I have not seen Man of Steel (2013) nor Batman v. Superman (2016) and don't plan to see either one. I have no truck with a brooding, "dark" interpretation of Superman and I was tired of the "dark" version of Batman by the time The Dark Knight (2008) rolled its end credits.
** To be fair, I did not stick around to see if Wonder Woman has a clunky, Marvel-esque post-credits sequence pointing toward future franchise entries.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Kong Skull Island (2017)

Bearing in mind that I am the guy who re-watches The Lost World more often than I do the original Jurassic Park, I saw Kong Skull Island over the weekend and got exactly what I expected: a brainless, action-packed good time.

Is the film thin on the ground plot-wise and character development-wise? Yes, quite.

Are the only characters who can be said to have any personality or character arc Samuel L. Jackson's Packard and John C. Reilly's Marlow? Yes.

Indeed, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty is correct to note that "there are about a half dozen too many characters to keep track of once the film gets underway." True -- I remember almost none of them except the two already mentioned plus John Goodman's Randa. Most egregiously, superb actors Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are especially underused here -- they get barely any lines and are mainly around to pose attractively in the foreground of tableaux shots.

As David Palmer writes in his negative review,
If ever there was a blockbuster that was the definition of "studio picture" it’s this. Everything feels been there/done that, and even the scenes where Kong is Gronk-spiking helicopters manage to feel lifeless and almost completely devoid of joy. Slow-mo is overused to the point of eye-rolling and [director Jordan] Vogt-Roberts doesn’t seem to give any character direction to his actors.
I agree with all this and yet, unlike Palmer, I thoroughly enjoyed Kong Skull Island. I knew what I was in for and had no expectation that the film would be anything more than what it is: a big, dumb, action movie in which a giant gorilla beats hell out of a bunch of stuff. Nashawaty calls Skull Island "a big, loud, and kinda silly monster mash that feels like a throwback to the late-‘90s Bruckheimer era of gung-ho, budgets-be-damned macho adventure" and I agree.

Skull Island's soundtrack is riddled with hackneyed, over-used Vietnam-era classic rock tracks: The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and of course CCR's "Run Through the Jungle." As Nashawaty remarks, the film's song choices evince "lack of care" and "have as much imagination as a Time-Life Songs of the ‘70s set." I found these choices annoying.

Yet the movie's weirdest musical choice -- which constitutes my single biggest complaint about Kong: Skull Island overall -- is its use of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" right near the end. That song forever belongs to the apocalyptic montage at the end of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). To use it in any other movie -- especially as used here, as a straight-faced piece of WWII nostalgia -- ends up feeling macabre and off-putting due to that unavoidable intertextual reference. These filmmakers should have known better.*

My other big problem with Skull Island is its bald-faced Orientalism in portraying the native tribe with whom Reilly's Marlow coexists. Between Marlow's Heart of Darkness-evoking surname and the decision to have the natives never speak -- they just silently nod and gesture throughout -- the filmmakers obviously mean to signal that they are "in on the joke," that they are re-hashing these racist, imperialist tropes knowingly, with a nudge and a wink. Yet the tropes are still damaging, and the film's racist, one-dimensional depiction of the 1970s Skull Islanders is distractingly offensive. They could have been done so differently.

In conclusion, I do not know if I will ever watch Kong Skull Island again, but there is a vastly greater chance of that happening than me ever watching Peter Jackson's overlong, draggy, bombastic, and boring King Kong remake again (believe me, I've tried). The difference lies in aspiration, not execution. Both 2005's Kong and 2017's Skull Island are well-executed blockbusters. But the 2005 film is trying too hard to be an "epic," serious homage to the 1933 original, so despite its great casting and better script, it is, for the most part, slow-paced and mind-numbingly boring.

Skull Island, in contrast, wastes no time getting to the island and the Kong fight scenes, so is a much more worthwhile investment of my time and entertainment dollar. I recommend it for what it is: blockbuster thrills held together with a stupid plot and flat characters -- but with the common decency not to pretend to be otherwise. Its honesty in this regard, which reminds me of Pacific Rim (2013), is refreshing.  

King Kong sez: "Eat my shorts, Peter Jackson."

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* Unless, of course, they were misguidedly trying to "steal the song back" from Kubrick on purpose, a hubristic and futile attempt which utterly backfires. How can anyone who has ever seen Strangelove forget that sequence and song?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Three Recent Good Movies

David Brent (Ricky Gervais) explains the various misfortunes that have struck his original "Foregone Conclusion" bandmates.  

I recently got around to watching David Brent: Life on the Road (2016, dir. Ricky Gervais) via Netflix streaming, and was pleasantly surprised by how truly good it is. Surely of greatest interest to those viewers who (like me) are familiar with writer/director Ricky Gervais' seminal BBC series The Office (2001-03), this feature-length sequel does not require such familiarity in order to be thoroughly enjoyed. The film, documenting David Brent's life ten years after the end of The Office, features zero cameos from the original series cast and only one brief reference -- to Pete Gibbons, what else? -- that would constitute an in-joke. Life on the Road stands on its own.

I therefore recommend Life on the Road to any viewer fond of British comedy and/or Spinal Tap-style mockumentaries. Indeed, Life on the Road is a lot like a more downbeat, dry version of Spinal Tap, as the self-involved Brent sets off on an expensive and disastrous vanity tour to attempt to flog life into his non-starter career as a rock musician. Everyone around him, including his hired bandmates and road manager, find him musically silly and interpersonally odious, and say so in their ongoing interview segments.

Meanwhile, Brent's own interviews highlight his socially important lyrics -- he is a clueless, unconsciously racist white man inexplicably fixated on native Americans and disabled folks -- and the big plans he's got for his musical career once he's signed to a record label.

David Brent convinces his long-suffering bandmate Dom (Ben Bailey Smith) to don an ethnically inappropriate costume for a gig. 

In addition to being quite funny -- some of Brent's songs and concert sequences are especially outrageous and squirmy -- Gervais here deploys a climactic device similar to that he used in his brilliant HBO series Extras: he gives Brent a chance at emotional, if not musical, redemption. His tour fails but for the first time since the character's first appearance in 2001, David Brent seems to actually learn something of value from his mistakes. A melodramatic ploy? Yes. Effective and touching? Yes.

As he has shown again and again, Gervais is a master craftsman of character-driven comedies like this, and his return to his best-known character is hilariously funny and surprisingly poignant. Life on the Road is definitely worth a watch.

Daniel Kaluuya's spot-on performance as Chris anchors Jordan Peele's 
must-see horror film Get Out. 

Get Out (2017, dir. Jordan Peele) is a fun, timely, and darkly humorous horror film that is in serious contention to be the best film of the genre released this year. It really is that good. It is also rated PG-13 which means it isn't too gory and should be accessible to thriller fans.

Get Out's most obvious referents are The Stepford Wives (1975) and John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966), yet Peele borrows concepts from those films (as well as visual ideas from The Shining etc.) and makes them very much his own. There is a strong sense of purpose and authorial voice in Get Out, including many wonderful comedic moments that perfectly break the tension -- just long enough to give the audience a brief respite from the thrills. As I discussed with my companions after the screening, I am most eager to see what Key and Peele and Keanu alum Jordan Peele does next as a director.

[UPDATE: Jordan Peele tells Business Insider that he's got four more planned "social thrillers" in the works.]

Most interesting to me is Get Out's knowing yet subtle riff on the ending of Night of the Living Dead, a film that obviously looms large for any genre fan when watching this movie, since it is one of the few other horror films ever to feature a black protagonist.

Timely due to its racially charged plot and thematics, Get Out lands because it is a well-crafted, thrilling movie, with lots of pathos and humor deftly interwoven with its scares and thrills. As this incisive critical essay by George Shulman notes,
the gift of Get Out is that its humor about the absurdities of race, and its playfulness with Hollywood genres of horror and thriller, displays the possibility of facing - exposing - this horror [of contemporary structural racism] in ways that cross racial lines, and by evoking affects other than self-righteous reproach and guilt. But the question remains whether this movie can - what act, event, or artifact possibly could - undo the knowingness by which Obama-era whites protect themselves from their implication in the horror, the horror.
Indeed. I know I over-use this adjective, but Get Out is truly brilliant -- equal parts thrilling, funny, and thematically poignant without ever being heavy handed. An absolute must-see.

Yet like Shulman, who wonders whether or not liberal white viewers will see themselves included in the film's critique of white obliviousness to racism, I hope Get Out can inspire the right kinds of discussions and reflections in its white viewers. The film's point is that even those of us who attempt not to be complicit in structural racism, are. We should enjoy this film as horror fans but seriously grapple with its implications as potential anti-racists. As Schulman poignantly writes:
did whites in the audience imagine themselves as exceptions, as exempt from the portrait of whiteness in the movie? When we were laughing at the fabulous humor, and when we felt terror at white predation, did we divide ourselves from whiteness by a kind of self-protective knowingness? Is that division exactly how Obama era politics could proceed while leaving the deep structure of white supremacy intact?
These are the right questions to ask and think about.

Amy Adams gives a riveting central performance in Arrival. As with Daniel Kaluuya's work in Get Out, the key concept here is empathy

I have been a fan of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve since Prisoners (2013), and have been eagerly anticipating my chance to finally see his latest movie, the science-fiction drama Arrival (2016). I just saw it this weekend and I was not disappointed. In fact, I would call Arrival my favorite Villeneuve film and the best science-fiction film I have seen since, say, Moon (2009).

On the basis of the first three Villeneuve films I saw -- Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario -- I would have said that the director suffers from the same "brilliant setup goes off the rails in the third act" malady as does Danny Boyle. Not to the same degree as Boyle -- seriously, look at the climactic sections of 28 Days Later and Sunshine and you'll see what I mean -- but detectable nevertheless. For example, Prisoners seems to start off as a serious meditation on the moral and emotional price of torture, then becomes a Silence of the Lambs-esque serial killer thriller in its third act. Sicario is mainly a story focused on Kate (Emily Blunt) until she basically disappears in act three and the film turns into a revenge thriller centered on a different character.

I have still enjoyed each of these movies, especially Enemy and Sicario, but I have noticed this tendency toward third-act inconsistency each time.

This problem does not exist in Arrival, Villeneuve's best-conceived and most coherent film yet. The third-act payoff is brilliantly set up from the very beginning of the film, in a "show don't tell" manner that is hook-producing and ultimately enormously satisfying. I can't give away specifics but let me just say that this film knows what its purpose is from the outset and it pays it off in an artful and emotionally resonant way.

The terrific cast doesn't hurt either. Amy Adams is especially good, and she is well supported by Forest Whitaker, Jeremy Renner, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Mark O'Brien. The alien vessels and creatures are convincing and interesting, and the sci-fi thrills will remind genre-savvy viewers of analogous situations from James Cameron's The Abyss and The Terminator.

In short, Arrival is thinking-person's sci-fi with enough militaristic thrills and interesting plot twists to satisfy any viewer who does not absolutely require lots of explosions in order to enjoy a film like this (though there is one explosion). Beyond that, the film does what great sci-fi should: suggests an emotionally truthful idea about who we humans are and can be as a species and a society. Arrival may not deliver an especially profound or unique message -- it is something we've heard before for sure -- but in these troubled and divisive times, it is a timely and appropriate idea. As a recent Oscar reviewer wrote of Moonlight's much-deserved best picture win this year, "in choosing Moonlight the Academy went for empathy over escapism." Arrival goes for empathy and escapism, and succeeds at both. An engrossing must-see.

The heptopod sez: "You humans have got to get your shit together!"

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Star Wars Fandom Explained


This post functions as a prequel (hee hee) to my forthcoming review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The present post will deal with the following two facts:

(1) I am of the generation who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and therefore may not be the target audience for the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005).

yet

(2) The Star Wars prequels are objectively shitty on every level except their deployment of digital effects and sound design, plus a few individually well-executed scenes here and there.

Not this one. 

I am a Star Wars fan from way back. I was just the right age to go see the original trilogy films as a kid with my family. I saw Star Wars (1977) multiple times in the theater because that was simply a thing one did for a year or so after its original release. I'm guessing I saw it five times in the theater.

Similarly, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were also family events, and big cultural events as well -- I got pulled out of school by my folks to go see Return of the Jedi with friends. Star Wars was the most significant cultural phenomenon of my early lifetime, and like it or not, my destiny is still somewhat chained to it.

Nowadays I categorically prefer Steven Spielberg's films over his geeky buddy George's,  As I have increased my appreciation for the art and technique of cinema, I see that Spielberg is an all-around great director, a true master of the form. Lucas is a good ideas man and executive producer, and a marvel at deploying special effects of all kinds, but he is lousy with scripts and actors -- this is a real Achilles' heel for him.

That said, that original Star Wars trilogy will always be with me.

What this also means is that I was one of those folks likely to have trouble with the Star Wars prequels.

I have already explained one reason why the prequels are total failures, which is because Lucas tried to take on too many tasks that he's frankly never shown he's very good at:
If Lucas would have brought on additional writers, surrogate directors, etc. and just focused on the one thing he knows how to do well, i.e., deploying special effects, those [prequels] might have been at least watchable and maybe even enjoyable. As it is, they are some of the worst movies ever made -- incoherently scripted, boringly shot, and abysmally directed -- and it is confounding to think that they could have been, with just the slightest bit more thought and effort, something more.
Ultimately, these films are mostly worthless because, as Mr. Plinkett has pointed out, they are structured like character-driven narrative films, yet they feature flatly written "characters" and insufficiently thought-out stories. At the scene level, they are too often directed badly, unimaginatively, and flatly. They are boring.


All that said, this apologia for the prequels is well-articulated and mostly fairly convincing. I will return to this piece in my forthcoming Episode II review.

As for recent, Disney-era Star Wars developments, you can read my Force Awakens review here. I haven't been able to motivate myself to get out and see Rogue One yet, but I have taken great pleasure from watching this long review, this short review, this follow-up review, and this amazing review parody instead.

Mike Stoklasa sez: "Me personally, I also loved this film"