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Above the Rim

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Guillermo Del Toro has long been in the business of making movies for Guillermo Del Toro, who must be deep down inside still the monster-loving child he was at age 13. I think I acknowledged this the last time I reviewed one of his movies, in which I had to admit that The Shape of Water may have pleased many many people but I was not one. However, it is more often the case than not that the tastes Guillermo Del Toro and my own align with a click and I am very very happy to have the opportunity to talk about a film that illustrates that.

It is also the case that audiences have been very much on the way to devaluing Pacific Rim as a film since so quickly after its release in the summer of 2013, which is hilarious given that it was one of the few highlights of such a dire summer. Not even necessarily out of slim pickings, but in a summer where the biggest popcorn tentpoles included such consciously unsmiling fare as The Wolverine and Man of Steel, one can hardly be blamed for finding joy in one of the few non-animated wide releases to just be about looking cool and having fun while killing giant monsters in giant robots. But even beyond that retrospective of a timeframe I don’t think deserves one, there is of course several popular criticisms of Pacific Rim that I can’t help spending my time here shaking quickly off:

First, there is the shallowness with which it homages all the properties Del Toro yolked the concept from: beginning especially with the seminal anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion and moving down the line to Mobile Suit GundamGodzilla and the other Toho monster movies, Ultraman, and even a future noir influence out of a favorite of yours truly Blade Runner*. And certain of those influences – especially NGE – imply a sort of emotional and thematic severity that most popcorn films, let alone Pacific Rim, are even remotely interested in attending to. Pacific Rim never made any promises of being a 1:1 remake of Neon Genesis Evangelion and hardly needs to be an in-depth exploration of its protagonists depression and emptiness in a cruel world barreling towards their destruction.

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It just needs to be one thing: a vehicle for how we watch giant mechas called Jaegers, sanctioned by the united governments of a desperate world, fight and crush the sinister skin-cracked sea-emerging creatures called Kaiju that threaten humanity so. Which the screenplay by Del Toro and Travis Beacham knock right off the bat, establishing that the world is in this state, that the war between humanity and alien invaders is in media res here, and boom! In less time than it takes to make a turkey sandwich, the game is on. The combatants are goliath, the environments variable, everything else is pure theory.

The efficiency of the screenplay does not somehow mean that it is devoid of weaknesses, however. For the lack of depth with which we are introduced to characters we ride along with the Jaegers are of a cliché sort: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), a former hotshot pilot, is being pulled out of a retirement originally brought on by the death of his co-pilot brother (it is established that the Jaegers require two compatible minds to operate and what better signifier of compatibility than fraternity). The grizzled no-nonsense General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is the one who pulls Beckett out and, after an assessment, pairs him up with Pentecost’s adoptive daughter and long-time aspiring Jaeger pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). And then there’s so many other clichés surrounding them: namely the pair of wacky scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman or the eye in the sky brains of the operation played by Clifton Collins, Jr. (a famously Mexican actor, though the name Tendo Choi suggests the character is… Chinese?).

And of course, there is the surrounding friendly rival allies from different nations (minus the friendly in the case of Robert Kazinsky’s Chuck), portraying an international unity in our heroes efforts. It’s more than textual as each of the main Jaegers – Gipsy Danger, Cherno Alpha, Crimson Typhoon, and Striker Eureka – are distinguished within the design of Andrew Neskoromny & Carol Spier with worn-out colors that suggest national pride in the face of an apparently losing war (the Chinese Crimson Typhoon lives up to its name) and bodily structures that suggest the utilitarian focuses of their nations, such as how Cherno Alpha has a core that resembles a defensive plant. Or even just doing more for character than the script, given that Chuck is easily the most aggressive of all pilots and his Jaeger Striker Eureka comes with blades on its forearms (though there is “that’s so cool!” moment where we learn Striker is not the only Jaeger with that edge).

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The Jaegers are not the only place in which the design is inspired. To begin with, the Kaijus themselves are alive and crackled, the CGI giving their body that living feeling of movement that can’t be said for a lot of animation even in this day (look at the “zombies” of Rogue One). And we have here a world that recognizes the sort of social and aesthetical impact that the existence of Kaiju would have across a society: a religious shrine is made out of the bones of a dead Kaiju, jobs invented out of creating walls in a new defense economy, fallout shelters, black market interests, and the interior design of a Jaeger feeling like a mechanical brain. This isn’t world-building: the world is already built just beyond the corners of our eyes, it’s world exploring.

And again, rain-soaked night time neon metropolis backdrops are my personal catnip. That some of these Kaiju vs. Jaeger battles occurred in dark oceans with shafts of light above illuminating fragments or dark rainy cities, as though this obscures the giant beasts of metal and bone, doesn’t ruin the effects anymore than it did in Jurassic Park 20 years prior. It works, the goliaths have a sense of physicality and scale that the camera is barely able to hold onto in full and promises more than meets the eye, making the battles have punch and impact, earth-shaking popcorn movie spectacle that we rarely see these days. It’s absolutely hard to lose the joy Guillermo Del Toro had putting these battles together, complete with great “Oh snap!” moments within them.

Still storytelling through design and action does not hide two-dimensional storytelling in plot. The characters are mostly flat as a board beyond Elba showing you can’t keep him down with first draft writing (the rest of the cast sadly do not fare as well with Hunnam weakest and that just brings more attention to the flaws of the script). And yet, when I hear Transformers used as a ridiculous comparison, I have to say it doesn’t indulge in the weaknesses of that franchise: there are no real “idiot plot” characters, no racial caricatures, no garbage humor, the very last beat of Pacific Rim rejects the concept that Raleigh and Mako are anything beyond very fond friends without losing any of the heart behind their friendship. The only real elements of the writing that gnaw under my skin are the leaps of logic and misunderstandings of science or physics (including the much mocked line “Gipsy’s analog. Nuclear.” as a response to all Jaegers being digital) that barely hold together the concept of a series of nations deciding the best response to monsters is to punch them out to a hell of a lot of city damage in big mecha suits and I just need to shut that thought in my mind up with one response:

“Listen, motherfucker, do you want to see robots fight monsters or not? Eat your damn popcorn.”

*I will confess that while I was sold already from premise and filmmaker long before the trailer hit and blew my socks off, the moment that cemented that I was watching it the night of was the end of the trailer with a raining neon Tokyo backdrop and Ron Perlman wearing future suave gangster threads being told by Charlie Day “It is pretty cool.” Yes, it was.

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Momma, I’m Coming Home

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So, it’s Mother’s Day and Cinema has a lot of mothers (which is funny because people usually can’t figure out who their father is inste– ahem) and I think it’s just about time that rather than honoring my own mother like I probably should, maybe I should tell these fictional mothers (with two real-life exceptions) that I see them and the hard work they do for their children and how their status as a mother informs their actions and decisions within their films more than a little bit. Anyway, I gotta finish this intro real quick because I promised my mom I’d buy her tickets for Life of the Party.

Behold:

10. Lynn Sear (Toni Collette) – The Sixth Sense

9. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) – The Exorcist

They both essentially play the same fields, so I’m discussing both Lynn and Chris in this entry. Both are characters being foregrounded within the first half as very desperately trying to find every option on why their child is performing some alarmingly bizarre behaviors and both are sidelined by the time that the element of the supernatural is fully acknowledged by the main players in the film. And yet these are both pretty overqualified actors giving fatigued urgent performances as they run through the options and find themselves in dead-ends that they have to barrel through. Chris gets the edge with an extra layer of dire guilt we watch on her face in a scene of torturous medical tests that provide more horror than any of the spooky ghost scenes after, but Lynn just as well has a standout scene upon her son Cole helping her accept his gift while he relays a message from her own mother.

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8. Maria von Trapp (Julie Andrews) – The Sound of Music

Who could possibly hate Maria? Even her romantic rival for Christopher Plummer’s Baron is eventually able to see what wonderful things she does for the von Trapp household and the kids themselves, able to function in all areas as a step-mother before the prospect of marriage is put on the table. She sees why the children feel alienated by their father and yet also why their father is such a demanding disciplinarian and by her presence connects the two together again. And also it’s Julie Andrews indulging in song and hating on Nazis. That’s it, game over.

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7. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) – Mildred Pierce

It’s practically criminal to include a list of the best movie mothers and not have Mildred Pierce on here. She pointedly throws herself on every possible cross she has to to make sure her monstrous elder daughter Veda is able to have everything she needs and more, while her success as a businesswoman is driven by her memory of the more loving Kay. And despite the disparity in reciprocation, we don’t see her play any favorites between the two. The only reason she’s so low is, given how the movie is mostly dominated with the Mildred-Veda pairing (Kay’s death occurring early in the film), Veda’s malicious elitism towards her own mother mark out their relationship as so draining and toxic to Mildred one knows the best course would have been to move on from her daughter’s grip. Pretty funny given that Crawford’s real-life relationship with her own daughter is notoriously the inverse.

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6. Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo (Uma Thurman) – Kill Bill Vol. 2

I’m honestly getting more and more suspicious of Quentin Tarantino’s behind-the-scenes treatment of women, but I’m still no less a fan of his work nor can I think of many other American filmmakers so generous to their female protagonists (save for James Cameron, who has not ONE but TWO entries here). We aren’t really aware of the survival of Bea’s child until the very last line of the first movie. But the second movie’s final act especially makes casual weaponization of a maternal grief and instinct that Thurman delivers cold as ice, slicing and dicing her way to some sort of personal peace up until she finds her daughter alive. Of course, the point of the final moments is that even with B.B. around, all the Shogun Assassin sit-down watches with B.B. in the world won’t satiate her until Bill is dead. And yet the final beats of the film are Beatrix looking forward to restarting as a mother and holding B.B. in her arms.

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5. Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett) – Strange Days

Ah yes, one of the James Cameron mothers (I bet you were expecting someone else) although directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow. I don’t know who is specifically responsible for Bassett’s exhausted performance in the film as she carries the most moral and grounded perspective of any other characters in this film, but Mace’s function as a mother is more in the peripherals of a movie that has bigger concepts to acknowledge. And yet we know that Mace’s dedication to her son as a divorcée whose ex-husband is possibly still in prison is why she’s carrying two jobs (possibly at the same time). Her marital and parental status gives everything else about the character – her distrust of police, her unwillingness to indulge in virtual reality, and her feelings for Lenny Nero – a soul in which for Bassett to build the performance out of. Not for nothing that the very scene where we see her meet Lenny and infatuated with her is one where she finds him comforting her son as her ex-husband is being arrested right outside their home.

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4. Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) – Erin Brockovich

Hottest Take: Julia Roberts totally deserved her Oscar for this movie, even above the crowd favorite of Ellen Burstyn’s more doomed mother in Requiem for a Dream. It’s a performance that turns around the image of America’s Sweetheart at the time into a gritted (but still lovable) mother, whose constant losses toughened her up enough to get really dirty when demanding what she needs to provide for her kids and without losing sympathy for the many other mothers and fathers and kids she is fighting for in the central legal case she’s cleaning up. The early ability of hers to statistically breakdown her financial and family status to Aaron Eckhart’s love interest later returned into easily reciting numbers and details of her clients towards a condescending legal assistant and her later explanation to her son’s feeling of abandonment by elaborating on the situation of a mother and daughter dealing with illness affected by her case boosts her hella up this list.

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3. Tina Quintero (Carmen Maura) – Law of Desire

Tina, like every other character in Almodovar’s Law of Desire and especially her brother Pablo, is a character of contradictions of a variety. She’s a transsexual woman who remains devoted to a Church that judges her, she’s a struggling actress who feels like she must exploit her struggles to remain in the spotlight, she’s a coke addict who has image issues involving her age. And that’s all without spoiling the rest of the craziness that happens in my favorite film by cinema’s greatest provocateur.

And yet she’s effortlessly functional as a mother to Ada, who is not even her blood daughter but of her cold ex-wife, constantly putting her first in any consideration and comfortably able to have any degree of discussion with her. The tight family unit between Tina, Pablo, and Ada is an unexpected source of warmth within the film’s sexual and violent story and there’s no doubt that despite all the fucked up things that go on in the movie, Tina has provided Ada with a very healthy household to grow up in.

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2. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) – Aliens

Frankly, this is the character I think of when “movie mom” comes up. Nobody gets points for recognizing that Aliens is secretly a treatise about motherhood and dealing with grief by finding one another in the vein of Ripley and Newt, but the reason why Aliens is such an easy choice is because Weaver is just so good at giving that sort of surprise savage Momma Bear turn, making it all nervy but determined against beasts that have clearly traumatized her enough. The only fucking reason this character is not number one is because I’m a shitty prescriptivist of a person who recognizes that 1) Ripley is not Newt’s blood mother and 2) most of the deeper character and relationship shaping for both of them are in the Special Edition of the film released in 1990.

Coincidentally, Aliens and Kill Bill are both movies my mom really loves.

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  1. Mrs. Jumbo (Verna Felton) – Dumbo

And apropos of nothing, Dumbo is one of the first movies I’ve ever watched and so the image of Mrs. Jumbo protecting her son from the laughter and gawking of everybody simply because he happens to be much much more adorable than any of them runs hella deep in me. And her desire to keep her son warm and comfortable even in her saddened imprisonment for whupping the asses of folks who deserved those whuppings jerks tears so hard half my face comes off with them. I mean, who doesn’t go awwwwww at that?

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L.O.L. – ¡Loser on Line! (Hate the Player, Hate the Game)

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So I can’t figure out if it would be more ethical to lay out my problems with the concept of Ready Player One on the floor now or to keep them to myself and pretend I’m not entering the movie with any pre-existing biases and I just figure I may as well come clean so whoever wants a shining review (pun unintended) will be let down easy.

I have never read Ernest Cline’s original novel of which Zak Penn based his screenplay on, but from what I understand of it (and Cline) it sounds shallow and emblematic of everything I am unimpressed with regarding “nostalgia as token” storytelling, especially 1980s nostalgia. And to be quite honest, I feel like Penn’s screenplay and parts of director Steven Spielberg’s storytelling retains a lot of the things that make the concept abhorrent to me: the strict focus on male-centric fan culture elements, the shallow background tokenism of minorities as support to the conventionally attractive white characters being the only ones with depth afforded to them (and even then, not by much), the gatekeeping moments where the villain is coded so because he doesn’t have enough John Hughes knowledge (including the now much-mocked line of “a fanboy can always tell a hater”), the antithetical ignoring of certain properties’ core substance to use them as bald action figures bashing against each other (most notably, the famously anti-violence The Iron Giant – created by a character whose only traits that aren’t a spoiler are their love for violent shoot ’em ups and their gearhead intelligence and the character is used accordingly).

None of those things are film-damning to my mind, honestly. It just means I stepped into Ready Player One with little faith to begin with, enough to overshadow my usual faith in Spielberg delivering another great piece of zippy popcorn entertainment despite the premise being trying desperately to sell the kind of escape a person can have in pop culture and video games. Probably because the movie doesn’t know whether or not it wants to also be a doomed look into a society so dependent on escaping reality that it falls apart and that’s honestly the more compelling area of the film to me.

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That video game that society is escaping into is called the OASIS, an open-world virtual reality environment where folks have invested so very much of their time and finances to the point of nationwide (at least) dystopia. This environment is represented with two major characteristics: first, motion-captured computer-animated scenes by Industrial Light and Magic that’s understandably “poor” in the way video game graphics would be but also filled with dazzling lighting effects for an imagination playbox as opposed to the last time Spielberg played with this toolbox in the fully animated The Adventures of Tintin. Second, OASIS is filled with a nauseating amount of pop culture references beyond the frequent name-dropping that would occur in character design, set design, vehicle design, and even soundtrack – mostly with wide-eyed shallow love for the 1980s. Which… ok, I guess.

It is completely believable that an unlimited sandbox world would be quickly overpopulated with pop cultures models rather than unique designs or a desire to exude personality, in case we forget we essentially have the OASIS in existence in real as VRChat and damned if you don’t come across a million anime characters and Ugandan Knuckles in those worlds. Somehow instead of the world being bitter about the ruined economical state against the creators of the game, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), they are idolized to the point that when Halliday abruptly announces his death in a pre-recorded stream, he also announces an easter egg hidden deep within the game – the prize of finding it being his entire estate including total control of the OASIS.

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Obviously that would attract the attention of a huge amount of players, including ones commissioned by the shadowy commercial corporation Innovative Online Industries and their apparently unimaginative profit-driven CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendehlson), who is somehow able to make his choice of AI as himself except Thanos-color and -body type, desiring to turn the OASIS into a giant marketing platform that would feel like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit reference of a plot point if it wasn’t obvious this movie would telegraphing the hell out of such an intentional decision. It also grabs the attention of a ragtag group of egg hunters, including blue elf avatar Parzival and his Ohio teen player Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan). Watts’ hunt leads into digging deeper into the tragic hermit life of Halliday for several clues to help him, gun-lugging orc Aech, Ninja Sho, Samurai Daito, and the mysterious and determined similarly elfen avatar except pink named Art3mis.

And for being the major draw of the movie, it just feels so… bored of its own spectacle. There’s no true investment in most of the decisions on what reference to drop in the film, no giddy excitement like we know Spielberg to shake out of us except within a certain giant battle in the climax of the film and a certain second act challenge that’s an homage to a certain famous filmmaker friend of Spielberg’s right up until they add dancing and floating zombies. Otherwise, it’s no slouch but it’s no more an impressive fully-animated video game landscape than TRON: Legacy, which had character and felt a lot more solid and sleek in a manner that’s much more interesting to watch. Meanwhile, Ready Player One feels like a kid playing with actions figures, but not in an excited joyous way. More like a kid who doesn’t want his little brother to touch them. All the more so by the reluctance Spielberg openly had for referencing his own work, something that’s certainly valiant and humble but wrong-headed when his work defined the era that Cline fetishized.

In any case, it’s still a Spielberg film and it takes a lot of work for one of those to not at least have an efficient sense of pacing (something especially impressive given the 140 minutes it has to move through) and it even manages to give that time some compelling content in the form of the live-action scenes. They’re superior to the animated Family Guy skit of a plotline in every way: Mendelsohn’s performance is so much more interesting when we’re actually watching him flopsweat about (it’s a lesser version of his work in Rogue One but better version of him than The Dark Knight Rises), the design of the dystopian Columbus, Ohio as a stack of trailers looking Babel-esque is able to work at establishing the dive in class for its inhabitants without feeling like miserablism, and most of all, we get to see more of Halliday. It’s a role which Rylance is wildly overqualified to play but something he approaches with lovable earnestness – he takes the social blocks Halliday appears to have and twists them into either vulnerable windows of his fears of social interaction or truly alienating and difficult resentment depending on what the scene asks. In Bridge of Spies, Rylance came across as the least Spielberg-ian entity, but here he is the most Spielberg-ian element of all: a Willy Wonka of sorts that was unprepared to deal with real life with a downfall the movie treats with honesty but not harshness. It is the closest thing Ready Player One comes to feeling like it has a soul and so if you hold tight to the glimpses of Halliday like I did, you might just find yourself at the end of the ride quicker than you expected.

They do have Battle Toads, though. So passing grade.

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The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room

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I honestly don’t know who missed which memo on the set of Rampage.

Whether or not director Brad Peyton and stay Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson missed the memo that a movie about dangerous animals turning giant by the abominable actions of science and turning a major metropolis into an utter ruin is not really a premise one needs to sacrifice an immense amount of entertainment and fun for. And mind you, this is hardly the first time they made this mistake or the worst perpetration of this tonal mishap. The stone-faced sobriety with which their previous collaboration San Andreas portrayed the devastating earthquakes The Rock was escaping makes Rampage look like Singin’ in the Rain. And yet you can get away with that sort of demeanor on the very real threat of a natural disaster. A gang of giants – ape, wolf, and crocodile – crushing a metropolis is inherently ridiculous. While it does well to give your film some sense of in-film logical grounding – which I assume is the reason this movie chose to have them actual animals who are exposed to a chemical rather than humans transformed into the animals as in the video game series it’s based on – it does not mean every character who isn’t played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan has to go unsmiling while the shit is hitting the fan. Plus, San Andreas has much more consistent and weighty visual effects than Rampage‘s frequently poorly composed animals and that leads to the second hypothetical memo.

Or if whoever was in charge of the major special effect in the film – the growing albino gorilla George (Jason Liles in mo-cap) whom Johnson’s primatologist character Davis Okoye cares for and raises – realized that he was bringing about an Adam Sandler character into a movie very certain on turning that character into something to fear for about 2/3 of its runtime. While the right idea is clearly in the makers’ mind, to both have some sense of levity and lean towards giving us a character that will hurt us to watch turn into a mindless monster, their execution is practically diving into Seth MacFarlane territory. With his constant usage of frat boy jokes to frequently undermine Rampage‘s sincerity (an extended usage of the middle finger, a finger-into-fist sign of inquiry), George would look right at home as the inarticulate best friend to Ted, if only Ted as a character wasn’t so well animated that he would make George look worse than he already does in direct juxtaposition. Either way, George and The Rock are clearly not starring in the same movie.

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These are not good looking giant animals y’all, living on an entirely different plane from the rest of their environments and often interacting with humans as though there is either a sheet of glass separating them or their aim is just awful when it comes to snatching them into their jaws. This is certainly covered up a whole lot better in the dusty rubble of Chicago or the sunlight cutting forestations which is probably why George’s gigantic co-stars Ralph the Wolf and Lizzie the Croc (Ralph is named, Lizzie is not – these are names I got from the games) fare significantly better in my memory than any apes in the film. Lizzie in particular is the standout, proving that the animators almost certainly saw another giant reptile film and so had a handy basis on how to make the crocodile feel dense and make the earth rumble with each step it takes. She also only really has to exist in the third act while we follow George and Ralph’s travels to Chicago instead.

Whether or not you read whatever the unholy fuck is the barely rendered… I don’t know, I think it’s a rat with movements that are unconvincing even in the context of zero-g space. How you read opening Rampage with that would be up to you: it could either be the movie just getting its worst CGI out of the way or it could be an early indication that it’s not a movie that could effectively commit to its one job of providing BIG CONVINCING monsters for its popcorn movie. I think it’s both on top of earlier elaborating what was going to be the only elements that knew what kind of dumb matinee fare was this movie’s best case scenario: an occasional indulgence in camera movement to give a little more surrounding character to the chaotic scenarios (an imploding space station in this case, a crashing cargo plane later on, and the climactic destruction of Chicago), a composer in Andrew Lockington that’s only interested in finding the most peril-rich clichés in movie music to indulge in, and a supporting cast mostly qualified to treat this as scientifically as Deep Blue Sea – in this particular scene, introducing to us in voice-only antagonist Energyne CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman), who even without seeing her face can easily have temperature guessed into the below zeros.

When we do see her face, Åkerman along with Jake Lacy as Wyden’s impotent brother Brett make a punchy duo of recognizable corporate evil as Lacy gives nervy cartoon energy to Brett’s stupidity without a trace of inner logic beyond “I don’t wanna go to prison!”. Åkerman meanwhile is like what somebody’s impression of a fun Louise Fletcher character would be and her straight-faced ability to still sell on every pointedly evil thing she says and does makes it feel like the character only uses financial terms as replacement for “EVIIIIIIILLLL” spitting out of her lips as they watch and approve of their research landing on Earth and their work leading to devastated trails of carnage*.

And of course, in the meantime, Jeffrey Dean Morgan struts in as a government agent with the most unconvincing Texan drawl a man could put on, refusing to stand up even slightly straight, and treating the mid-film expositional dump he puts upon Okoye and Naomie Harris’ fired Energyne Dr. Kate Caldwell like the best chance to chew up all the possible scenery he can consume, making him a fellow valiant presence attempting to right up the ship sunk by Peyton’s sobriety to the material. Unfortunately, Morgan is not in charge of the movie nor his evildoer co-stars. Peyton and The Rock’s earnestness to the material is well-meaning but a downfall to a movie that shouldn’t need to be earnest to be entertaining and would probably do better with the low-quality of the animals, its main draw, to have the borderline silliness of a Roger Corman flick than its unironic insistence that yes… Rampage expects you to take these badly animated inserts as seriously as the Rock does.

*Also they have an arcade rack of the original game Rampage in their very professional high-rise office sticking out, implying that the game exists in this film and they were inspired by it for their Project Rampage. Which means they have wildly good aim and/or odds when they landed on the three animals of the game AND that ape would be named George AND that internet conspiracy theorists would name the wolf Ralph.

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Some infinities are bigger than other infinities

Eh, I’m not gonna try to spoil the movie, but you’re probably not going to get general descriptions. Anyway, it’s been two weeks… you have seen the movie already.

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10 years down the line of a nakedly pre-ordained order of films of varying quality, nobody gets a cookie for observing how much the Marvel Cinematic Universe registers at this point as an assembly set of products developed to advertise each others’ existence and move us up to the next BIG EVENT picture, like an exhaustive bombarding of tentpoles.

Nor could that be an inherent point against Avengers: Infinity War. It’s hardly the first crossover created on that basis of self-generated hype. It’s not even the first Avengers movie to do that. It IS the first movie since Iron Man 2 to function more of an obligation/trailer sprinkling several references from previous installments (including a scene where the punchline is characters verbally recapping the last movie they were in).

It’s also attempting to trade off the strength of the previous Marvel film that directors Anthony and Joe Russo were involved in, Captain America: Civil War, a fun and breezy exercise in pairing up characters as scene partners and turning up some fun combinations of action and comedy. Which in turn was something the first Avengers accomplished as well on a similar scale. The novelty and fun from that movie didn’t come from any stakes or tension, but from how these different personalities get to collide both verbally and physically.

I can’t say that novelty translates well to Avengers: Infinity War, where it wants to accomplish that levity but demands those stakes are activated like Thanos (Josh Brolin) activates his gauntlet. The result is a tonal juggle between doom harbinging (with most of the characters in one storyline having their lines be some variation on “Thanos is coming, we are going to die!”) and the modus operandi of the MCU’s comedic bathos with extended scenes of snappy banter trying to one-up each other. It is less fun to witness Sorcerer Supreme Master of the Mystic Arts Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and billionaire genius playboy inventor Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) try to see who has the bigger dick than, say, Civil War having Iron Man encourage naïve high-schooler Peter “Spider-Man” Parker (Tom Holland) with him responding in idol worship or Stark and temperamental monster scientist Bruce “Incredible Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo) bonding over science and stuff in The Avengers. It feels just like an improv group trying to one-up each other instead and it brings a lot of attention to the fact that most of their characters are some slight variation on the same Whedon-esque egotism with heart.

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In that turn, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dealt with just two different story strands that were going in the same direction anyway. Avengers: Infinity War trades up from 10 above-the-line named stars in that last film to 19 and now we have four different plot strands going on with one thoroughline between them: the afore-mentioned demented alien despot Thanos, who had been watching in the shadows since the first Avengers, wields the Infinity Gauntlet and seeks the six different cosmic Infinity stones that will power that powerglove enough to accomplish his goal of balancing the universe (read: kill half of its inhabitants). Thanos acquires most of the stones with relative ease but two in particular are in the possession of characters with a lot of fight in them, so…
Plot Strand #1 – Doctor Strange is kidnapped by one of Thanos’ CGI Star Wars henchmen due to his tenacious guarding of the Time Stone, with Iron Man and Spider-Man racing to rescue him.
Plot Strand #2 – Super-soldier Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), spy Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff (Scarlett Johannsson), and flight inventor Sam “Falcon” Wilson arrive in time to help reality manipulator Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) rescue Mind Gem-animated android Vision (Paul Bettany) from more CGI henchmen.

Meanwhile,
Plot Strand #3 – The Guardians of the Galaxy are notified by God of Thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) that Thanos is on the hunt for the Infinity Stones. Rocket Raccoon (Sean Gunn mo-cap; Bradley Cooper voice) and adolescent tree-man Groot (Vin Diesel) accompany Thor to grab a weapon that could kill Thanos while
Plot Strand #4 – Remaining Guardians Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Thanos’ adopted daughter assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), literal-minded muscle Drax (Dave Bautista), and psychic empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff) try to intercept the remaining stones before Thanos can.

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There is of course the reading that can be made that Thanos himself is the protagonist of Avengers: Infinity War. Indeed, he is introduced into the film within the first few shots (remains until the very last shot) and he gets the brunt of an emotional narrative arc including a backstory to explain his logic beyond the comics explaining “he wanna bang-a Death”. I align with the reading that Thanos is one of the central characters of Infinity War, but I absolutely cannot align with him being THE protagonist. Save for the final shot, we never have him in a scene unless another one of the Marvel heroes are and that’s a lot of movie without his appearance.

A lot of movie especially between those four plotlines where only two of which has any real incident (The Thor/Guardians ones) and the rest leave us with a fractured sense of pacing. We’re jumping between the Guardians trying to stop Thanos in Knowhere cut to Captain America’s crew sitting around trying to decide where to go with little segue. It also means this film is overstuffed with characters having little to do – Captain America and Black Panther King of Wakanda T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) being the most apparent victims of this. And that means a jilting of any dramatic heft for recognizable characters who don’t really get developed within Infinity War itself. Obviously, Infinity War was trying to match the structure of a crossover event comic book, but do you notice how in those events some character’s issues will be shorter than other character’s issues in the comic book world? Yeah.

It should be obvious at this point that my preference was the Guardians side of things – not only for its reliance on comedy and humor (which is the only thing that kept me entertained throughout the entirety of Infinity War, though Holland was a reliable source of levity) – but because the space backdrop was a better atmosphere for the cosmic alien elements than anything on Earth. The effects and design mixed better in a fantastical space. It worked better to see Thanos in these wildly colorful zones than his cronies wrecking shit in Europe. Thanos’ previous connection with the Guardians (his only previous major appearance being in their first movie) means there’s more tension to pull out in their conflict, while the mid-film kidnapping of Gamora actually gives Quill and the crew an active objective beyond “Let me be at Titan/Wakanda by a certain point of the film”.

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They only need to be in those locations to start a fight with Thanos’ forces, leading to a first for a Russo brothers Marvel film: the action is disappointingly bad. There are glimmers of collaborative hero charm within the opening battle in Greenwich Village or the second to last pile-on on Thanos’ home planet Titan (Doctor Strange evidently the most formidable of combatants), but the whole of these fights don’t feel at all as creative or weighty as the stuff the Russos previously brought us in Civil War. It is just much less interesting to watch heroes get punched down by an unstoppable CG mass than it is to watch them fight each other and try to dodge each other’s strengths and be intuitive on the spot. The other major battles are messes: Wakanda feels like it wants to be cross-cut with Titan and yet already shoots itself in the foot by having two theaters between the field and Shuri’s lab. And I can’t tell you what the bloody fuck is going on in the Scotland fight.

Which leads us to the infamous finale and… god, I honestly didn’t feel a thing. For one thing, there’s the impermanence of the whole matter translating from the comics but not as a strength, instead removing any semblance of stakes. Whether you want to hitch on to the fact that we have scheduled movies with many of the characters outside of Infinity War‘s premise or you want to acknowledge how often this franchise effortlessly reversed many of its “consequences” in the past (usually within the same movies!), there’s no denying that nothing lasts in the MCU and that cripples their drama. The decision of whom the finale targets is another problem. While one actor is able to make his exit affecting with a frightened performance (as well as the smart decision to remove any music so that we only hear his desperate last words), most of the characters who are chosen don’t have much response to their fate and what is left is the safest selection of heroes you could have in a movie called The Avengers.

But all of that still doesn’t recognize the movie Infinity War is preceding that finale doing little to make me emotionally invested in this outcome. We recognized The characters that disappeared from their previous movies that we loved, but they were not characters in Infinity War. They were plot devices with little identity or personality or drive that the screenplay gave them. Any emotion you had for them needed to be hitched onto them from your previous encounters with them. Which, y’know, is how a franchise sometimes works…

And here’s the thing: the movie worked for the majority. Not just financially, but in acclaim-wise. That positivity people had for these characters latched on to the movie with ease. They vibed with the premise and everybody in my theater cheered the second almost every character showed up. So, if you walk in with that excited mindset about seeing these characters interact on spaceships, you’re going to be satisfied.

Me, I’m just an anomaly. Between the action’s inability to work out or the characters standing around waiting for a chance to throw hands without being involved in the premise proper, there’s nothing here for me. I certainly had an attachment to most of the characters (if not based on their performance based on their film or comics), but I expected more to be done with them and watching them stand around made Infinity War feel like an infinity to sit through.

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A New Hope

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Obviously “name the scene that changed the game of cinema” is way too broad an accomplishment to narrow down, but when deciding on the three major moments that totally transformed the art form in my eyes, I settle on the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, the mid-film death of Marion Crane in Psycho, and the opening shot of Star Wars. And while the other two describe a scene that impacted me on an intellectual level, only the Star Wars sequence hit me on a gut eye-widening level even when I first watched it – which was, for the record, on a TV screen in the 1990s at a toy store that probably was one of the much edited Special Editions (and obviously, I’m not a caveman… at this point, I only go Despecialized or bust).

Anyway, that shot alone to remind you if you’ve seen Star Wars, because you almost certainly have (and if not, don’t both reading this review because I won’t really try to bring you up to speed and will not hold back on the spoilers), is a rebel cruiser slowly but desperately crawling above our heads in a speed that tells us enough with its blasts that it is being followed. We see in the same shot shortly after what is following it: this Goliath prism of forebodingly bleached technology with the very appropriate name of the Star Destroyer completely eating up the screen too quickly for us to prepare for its entrance, let alone have any hope that this cruiser will escape its clutches. I mean, describing it doesn’t work, you gotta see it to believe it.

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It’s like “yep… that’s a spaceship alrigh– no wait, THAAAAT’S a spaceship.” It’s more than just an incredible opening move by writer/director George Lucas to establish the dominance and antagonism of the evil Empire in less than a minute. It is in my humble opinion the most accomplished work of visual effects to date. It’s a challenge to popcorn cinema since Star Wars first opened on 25 May 1977 to try to surpass the scale and tangibility of this fantastical moment of bleeding edge technical storytelling. While visual effects have only evolved further and further down the line, nothing in my eyes has made good on the challenge (though I will say the gap in evolution between 2001: A Space Odyssey and this doesn’t feel that large). Even the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park or Gollum from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers feel like distant runner-ups compared to how that Star Destroyer takes me aback if I give myself enough time between viewings of Star Wars.

I mean, one doesn’t really need to recount the ways that Star Wars had affected the filmgoing sphere since it dropped like a proton torpedoes. It’s practically a joke among “sophisticated” (read: sticks-up-their-asses) cinephilia circles that the movie killed cinema along with Jaws and, sure, the sudden focus it brought in to ambitious bombastic narratively and thematically unchallenging spectacle into the 1980s is irrevocable after the thoughtful auteur-driven 1970s New Hollywood movement. But it’s very easy to fall for that spectacle when it’s this refined and bleeding edge, capable of retaining its ability to create plausible worlds to suck its audience in even 41 years after the fact. And it is apparently even easier to forget that it gets to accomplish that by having its designs tap into the malaise of New Hollywood and the disillusion of the post-Vietnam late 1970s, making it no less a bonafide member of the New Hollywood movement than Lucas’ previous two films THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

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I mean, take a look at the beginnings of Tatooine farmboy-turned-hero Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) story: he lives in the middle of nowhere, just a dried desert planet so empty that just watching TWO FUCKING SUNS feels like a mundane way to vent out his boredom. And mind you, those two suns are yet another brilliant showcase of Lucas’ visual storytelling… the way Luke faces out towards the horizon telling us of the potential journeys ahead of his hopes of escape, the rising sun being the most basic of “this is the beginning of something life-changing” metaphors.

But anyway, this is diverging how Tatooine looks like it sucks, right? Because it does – the film does nothing to dress up the fatigue of the Tunisian desert it was shot in. The script by Lucas spends a little less than an hour lying inside this godforsaken sandy mass that occasionally has dunes and domes popping out from under its surface making Skywalker feel no less restless about the lack of direction in his life as any of the teenagers from American Graffiti, where Lucas seems to tap into the youthful yearning of such a hero. And mind you, the vehicles which American Graffiti revolves around (no wonder Lucas was so fascinated with having John Dykstra bring some technological logic to the models) are not glamorous but they are a sight better looking than the slim hovercraft speeder he rides around that looks more like the wheels fell off than any actual advancement was made or the rusted up massive maroon Sandcrawler from which Skywalker picks up protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) that take him onto his impromptu journey with the guiding old hermit Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to rescue the kidnapped Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the grasp of the Empire’s main enforcers, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones; physically played by David Prowse).

And I mean, from the moment he arrives, the gilded C-3PO is the best looking thing on Tatooine and his paint is practically fading off his body as is. When the escape pilots bad boy Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) unveil their bucket of bolts the Millennium Falcon, it’s a bulky disc of a thing that makes Ben and Luke’s initial doubts understandable (though this is maybe not a feeling that translates well into the new generation, given how the Falcon is now the most beloved ship in the entire fandom). Even once they’re off that planet, the only other major locations in the film are either the clearly unstable Rebel Base looking more commandeered than fixtured within the ruins they seek quarter in and the Death Star. And my oh my does the Death Star look sterile and unwelcoming from the aged chrome that surrounds its hallways from top to bottom to the very designs of its space Nazi rebels, not least of all Vader himself sweeping through corners in a towering posture as Jones gives cold delivery to every single word he utters as he crushes throats in midair with the power of the Force.

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It’s a miracle the film works so well as unambiguous entertainment despite living in a world that’s not as fascinated with its own existence as we are, thanks to John Barry probably deciding to use the limited budget 20th Century Fox afforded this project to avoid glamorizing the futurism Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz envisioned and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor refusing to ease up on the grain of the film stock, practically timestamping it within 1977. And I’m sure Barry had more budget to work with than costume designer Michael Kaplan, who wisely knew how to use the texture and shade of the rags he put atop of most of the characters to signify their humble beginnings (and of course Leia doesn’t have a complex costume herself and yet the clean clarity of her white dress tells all about her hierarchy above our plucky heroes) while color-coding the alignments of our cast into good whites and evil blacks (with Vader the blackest of all, practically shining with a shadow of a cape following him). And of course, Tatooine wouldn’t be transformed without the landscape shots of second-unit photographers being the accomplished soon-to-be-household names of Tak Fujitmoto and Carole Ballard.

But my oh my, here I am establishing how accomplished visually Star Wars is as a production and I never truly got around to talking about how amazing it sounded. Because if there’s one name more attached to Star Wars than anybody except Lucas himself, it’s the incredible composer John Williams and Williams takes this opportunity to truly put the “opera” in “space opera”. Even against the “Master of Manipulative Schmaltz” Steven Spielberg, the music Williams puts into Star Wars might very well qualify as the most audience-directing work he’s done in his entire career, largely through the not-so-secret weapon of leitmotifs he adopted from the structure of operas so that we could quickly associate certain musical phrases with characters and events so that when they pop up now and again we have a sort of mapping of emotions and thoughts to guide us through story beats. Remember that duel suns thing I mentioned above and how mundane it is: we know that because of Luke’s emotions in the scene prior, the way he’s unimpressed with everything, and frankly the lack of emotiveness to Hamill’s look at the sunrise but Williams is not telling us that’s what the moment is: he’s all about driving the longing of the horizon deep into the heart of the viewer with his famous “binary sunset” theme and by god does it overpower us anyway alongside the fact that Luke may have seen a binary sunset before, but we sure as hell haven’t.

And even after Williams is the soundscape Ben Burtt designed for this universe. R2-D2 for instance famously only speaks in beeps and whistles (C-3PO is the anglicized one of the pairing) and Burtt’s intuitive enough about the range of sounds to give R2 a true identity and personality enough to recognize him as a little trouble-maker full of energy is a miracle of character creation simply from knowing what sounds can communicate that. Or the lasers, not least of which the trance-like neutrality of the fucking laser sword lightsabers or the excitement of the crackling and spitting those things make when they’re in contact, something to make the otherwise frankly boring battle between Vader and Ben feel more violent and charged. Burtt and Williams collectively are the best things Star Wars have going for it and the unsung creators of an audial world that allowed already transporting visuals to occupy our hearts in a primal invisible way, answering why 1/4 of its 6 Oscars went for its sound and music (the others being Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing).

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Which leaves the misfortune of having to recognize that these accomplishments in craft are given the task of carrying less than stellar writing and acting. The writing itself is easier to pinpoint. It is the opinion of yours truly that the scripts of every Star Wars film are always the weakest link and the 1977 original certainly gave a decent enough jump start to that tradition, but its adherence to the cliché Hero’s Journey of Campbell that Lucas espoused so highly is hardly criminal in itself and it’s certainly a broad line for which Williams to follow and amplify through his music. It’s the dialogue: excusable maybe to those who have no problems with in-universe kludges of proper nouns, but it’s all chewy and clunky when the cast has to use those nouns and unsubtle direct plot-plodding when they don’t. The fact that the majority of the cast feel unconvinced with the diatribes on the Force and the Empire that they have to deliver makes it all so much less believable and truly makes Williams’ work cut out for him.

Which may as well segue to the cast, but at least they do have their high points: for one thing, Cushing’s gaunt grey-haired skull-like visage already does well enough to communicate his somber wickedness and then he has to add a sort of smacking sneer to his threats and interrogations that blow my mind how he can accomplish that without even the shadow of a smile cracking. Then there’s all the non-verbal characters: Mayhew and Baker able to use body language in their limited roles to feel friendly and in some cases scene-stealing. And while I understand Guinness’ famous hatred of Star Wars, he’s frankly one of the best actors in the world and can turn even a expositioning old man like Ben into a viable source of guidance to what our heroes objectives are and the possibilities they can achieve with the help of the force. And frankly, between Guinness here and Hamill in the later film The Last Jedi, it’s quite possible that cynical jaded actors who have doubt about the direction of their characters make for the best aged and tired performances of long-lost heroes trying to prepare their successors for what is to come.

Sadly, Hamill does not accomplish anything as brilliant as The Last Jedi here: he is frankly wan and whiny in a petulant off-putting way, like a grown child that doesn’t make for a compelling surrogate to the audience. And meanwhile, none of his major co-stars Ford or Fisher do as well either: Fisher’s pronunciation of words between her teeth is so naggingly conscious that it feels like a college freshman trying to do an overexaggerated British accent on stage and Ford’s cockiness is quite honestly the best out of the three but doesn’t sell one bit on the moral ambiguity we’re supposed to buy from the character before his big saving return in the climax through the trenches. I’d probably prefer to say more about their performances when I get to the sequels where they improve significantly, because wallowing in a trio of amateur actors at the beginning of their careers feels quite mean.

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Let’s instead return to what makes me high off of Star Wars and choose the afore-mentioned trench run climax as a brilliant metaphor to how the experience of Star Wars shakes me as a viewer. Luke’s rushing through all these details surrounding him deep on the surface of the Death Star and there’s so much thought put into their construction and grounding them all within the same universe and yet he barely recognizes them nor do we. We’re just on the ecstasy of the speed in which we’re exploring this surface towards our destination. Meanwhile, three crooked looking eyeball-esque TIE fighters are on his tail with Vader closing in and it brings a sense of danger and urgency to scene beyond everything else. And then there’s the moment where we hear Guinness’ warm voice calm Luke and us down and re-assure us that this is a story where we know the ending and that the good guys will prevail, the certainty that gives Luke confidence to abandon the missile-guiding system, the cheeriness that accompanies Solo’s entrance as he gets the TIE fighters off of Luke, and most of all the exhilaration we have at witnessing Luke make a bullseye at the ventilation shaft, punctuated by the explosive blast of the Death Star’s destruction just as Luke zooms away.

So many different emotions communicated to us at lightning speed thanks to the factors all collected and arranged by the editors Marcia Lucas (George’s former wife), Paul Hirsch, and Richard Chew. And all with the trust and direction of Lucas, a man who probably later on invited ridicule for his overwhelming inability to tell a complex or nuanced story, but for now carried an ambitious desire to create some semblance of new worlds, even out of a limited number of locations and none of them as fantastical as one would think, and transport us there. And frankly, Star Wars isn’t a story that needs nuance or complexity. The attempt to input it feels like the failing of most Star Wars movies I’m not fond of. Sometimes, you can provide intelligent popcorn cinema simply by trusting the sounds and designs to magnify the emotions the story can barely give us and Star Wars does that in such a kinetic way that I can’t imagine how anybody could leave it feeling unstimulated.

It lifts me up and takes me back a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

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Actually, Chewbacca deserves a medal. Fuck this movie, it’s the worst.

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And Freedom Tastes of Reality

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So given how I rage-quit the dare my best friend and I made to read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey books very early and thus never made it into its literary sequels, I can not tell you how much of the James’ screenwriter husband Niall Leonard retained into the script of Fifty Shades Freed, the third film in the main trilogy (a second trilogy of the story written by James from a different perspective existing). I am going to assume all the spousal disagreements that make up the early turbulence in protagonists Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and Christian Grey’s (Jamie Dornan) marriage and honeymoon, including Christian’s unambiguous possessive nature to Ana as his wife, most notably Grey’s frustration to the point of unprofessionally barging into her office to demand why the hell she didn’t take a new email address with his last name for the business. And if that IS the case, then I’m going to assume it is at worst Leonard’s writing or at best only James Foley’s mishandled directing that gives this less of and “this is something Christian has to grow up about” attitude and more of a “will she or won’t she” attitude which is absolutely troubling, since it is one of the areas where Christian has no grounds to be such a baby about it.

Not that he has as much of one over how he tries desperately to keep Ana locked away in their luxury condo (missing any ounce of character in how it was originally shot and designed in the first movie in this trilogy), but at least in that case, their lives are actually in danger as they are targeted and stalked by Ana’s former boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Yes, indeedy, Fifty Shades Freed is one step closer to transforming its shoody material into good-bad movie territory now that it has that “returning antagonist comes back in psychotic supervillain” mode and Leonard’s screenplay is also – to its very little credit – significantly more focused on this prevalent threat on the characters’ lives, weaving well enough in between Hyde’s presence and the couple’s accommodation to newfound married life. Still it’s not quite there when Foley is still intent on turning this movie into an over-sincere delivery of issues that simply can’t be taken sincerely even by the author who acknowledged them as her “midlife crisis, writ large”.

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Foley’s direction can be felt as unsmiling no matter how ridiculous the moment: the significant increase in amounts of sex scenes (which at least indicates that they finally get why the hell these stories sold, though the vanilla framing and cutting of it and even the easy “quick google search” version of the kinks they take part in like the ice cream scene keep it from being anywhere near arousing), the attempts at thrilling moments like the slowest and least exhilarating car chase scene I may have ever seen in a major motion picture. There is only so fast one can go in rush hour traffic but Foley and the editor has magically found a way to make it surpass that as its own form of suspended time and space where the only true adrenaline coming from the moment is Dakota Johnson childishly stating “I’m a race car driver”, one of the few moments where the fun actress seems to be having in the role leaks out into the role totally undeterred by the total creep she is trying to evade.

Ah yes, Johnson. This is once again a performance where she cracked the code of giving these movies a camp performance that can take everything happening to Ana and Christian here seriously enough to make them feel like stakes while still fully aware of how ridiculous the circumstances seem to be for this couple. She has less reinforcements this time around given that the majority of the screentime is between her, Dornan, or Johnson with occasional pop-ins by Luke Grimes as Christian’s younger brother or Arielle Kebbel as the architect hired to fix up the married couple’s new house. And by “fix up”, it apparently means “completely tear down the mansion and rebuild the glass house from House on Haunted Hill over its grave and also flirt openly with Christian to Ana’s consternation”. None of which seem to catch up with Johnson’s cue (Kebbel is close enough but her screentime doesn’t last too long).

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Least of all, Dornan who seems to think the response to the material is to take only so much more seriously enough to demand he now have slightly more expressive faces from the fixed glares he began with and that’s… a choice. The night and day between the two lead performances get in the way of any possible chemistry they might have as screen partners. They’re simply not acting in the same movie, let alone being on the same page. Needless to say, I end up preferring the movie that Johnson is acting in.

No need to hold them too accountable because it seems like there was just never much space for the movie for anybody to act like people. The characters are just existent to facilitate the multiple sex scenes that Foley and company just seem utterly disinterested in (shall I state that the very last shot and cut is a door closing just as sexytimes is about to happen?) written as though Leonard is an alien trying to figure out the most literal inelegant way that they can move from “this issue popped up regarding this cute person who is smiling at you too much” to “well, I guess we can just sweep that quickly under the rug” with just dialogue and a scowl. That Hyde ends up the conflict with the most staying power seems to just be on account of that having more pieces moving (including – *le gasp* plot twists) than Ana being angry at Christian’s texts. The second most-present conflict enters deep enough in the movie to qualify as a spoiler, but suffice it to say, it only sticks around on account of the rich multi-billionaire who has enough money to buy ten lifetimes of Chipotle acting like his life is thoroughly ruined by this development and taking it out on Ana because if there’s one thing this series established, it’s that Christian only knows how to take out his frustrations on women.

It’s apparent by the finale montage of “highlights” in the entire trilogy that the film is convinced we were highly invested in the domestic happiness of a couple that can’t even decide on the exact type of house they want. I’m very certain for some audiences, they probably were. It is also my understanding that many members of the BDSM culture find it to be a harmful portrayal of their practices without a single thought to how trust takes part in it. I can’t say the Fifty Shades trilogy gave me much more than a downward spiral into the idea that sex can be utterly mundane if you try hard enough and there is no floor to that.

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I Can’t Hear Myself Think

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Film criticism – at least in the form of deciding on what a film does right or wrong, regardless of your admission to subjectivity – is an inherently narcissistic practice as is and when it comes down to deciding that the filmmaker in question really doesn’t get his own movie, that just makes things even more narcissistic no matter how subjective a work of art is and “la mort de l’auteur” aside on a work where you are decidedly not an authorial voice. And yet here I am, where my first thought about A Quiet Place every time it pops into my head is how director & co-writer John Krasinski (who also stars in it, lest we forget he’s an actor first and foremost; his fellow co-writers are Bryan Woods & Scott Beck) missed the extremely thin but notable line between making the film the simple yet effective monster movie thriller that it is and an exploration about the trespassing shock of noise in the midst of an atmosphere of silence.

That line is Marco Beltrami’s musical score.

It is not precisely a bad musical score, but it is not a very great one – resigning itself to telegraphing all the normal horror movie beats in unsubtle fashion – and I can imagine (and have encountered) those who have come out A Quiet Place finding it to be great in spite of that score, I can not imagine someone walking out finding it to be a strength or not thinking A Quiet Place would be better without it. It sucks away most of the tension like a vacuum that comes from the characters having to keep totally quiet, leaving only the basic literal tension of “most people if not all people do not want to get eaten by giant slimy CGI crab-monsters whose bodies are apparently made out of armored cochleas”. Which is still something, but a lot less experiential or immersive of an experience. And indeed, much of the praise for the film comes from the idea that it could immerse the audience into a conscious silence, but that was unfortunately not the entirety of my experience for the film (in fact, I’d say horror movies are exactly the kind that make audiences want to respond with “oh no” and audible gasps the moment something bad occurs. Which is exactly what went down in my theater, ignoring how the person I accompanied the theater with was trying to crack jokes and yeah I’m probably never watching a movie like this with him again).

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Anyway, the way one gets that A Quiet Place wants to be that little “cut the silence with a knife” picture is how the sound mix consciously accentuates isolated elements of the sound as disruptive enough to make a fellow whose survival depends on it jolt just a little bit. You don’t make that kind of decision if you don’t want sound and its absence to matter in a picture like that and it’s impressively done outside of Beltrami busting in at often-unnecessary moments.

It also wants to be a movie about the importance of parental responsibility where hopelessness surrounds the world completely (as this is indeed a post-apocalyptic film where those monsters have consumed the apparent majority of the human population and establishes that with dry, desolate rural terrains) or the strength of a family in a time where guilt and finger-pointing seem to be the easiest paths to choose in a time, focusing on a nuclear family fluent in American Sign Language made up of engineer/farmer (maybe? this is a movie of ambiguous visual clues to tell us about the way life is here) Lee (Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt) and his three children Beau (Cade Woodward), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and their eldest and deaf daughter Regan (real-life deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, following her brilliant debut in the apparently underseen Wonderstruck) and their struggles to keep things together in the wake of an opening scene tragedy that sets up stakes in a violent manner (violent for a PG-13 film, you understand).

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Such stakes that one would of course wonder what makes the decision for Evelyn’s apparently imminent pregnancy not look like a very very bad idea to the family* a little over a year after that opening scene (the movie takes place over two days after that scene), but nevertheless there they are preparing for the potentially noisy and definitely painful arrival of a baby into their “shut up or die” apocalypse world and it’s certainly something the actors prove to be qualified to portray with all the weight necessary to make this matter. Simmonds especially the resultant self-recrimination and frustrating lack of dialogue with his father without the slightest bit of overplaying it, given her knowledge on how to express her emotions without needing audible speech to do so.

Anyway, I guess my overall attitude on that family drama side of the material is likewise a “it’s not great, though it’s not bad either” element. Most of the emotional heavy-lifting has to be performed by its cast in the first place and it looks like at the very least Jupe is more interested into turning any moment of threatening danger into a moment of unmoving dread and fear (which he does very well). It’s perhaps the fact that the movie’s competent and frequently impressive thriller setpieces overwhelm the idea that it could ever be more than an early pre-summer thrillride and in a way, I don’t see why it should want to be more than that. I mean, even the complaint I had at the beginning of this review is more towards its function as a thriller than its possibility of elevating itself beyond genre cinema. And even with Beltrami as a handicap and a less-damaging-but-still-contrived series of character decisions and actions in the final act, A Quiet Place is directed very horror-movie-consciously in framing and pacing by Krasinski to pass itself as a worthy exemplar of popcorn cinema just before the season where we will get that dread-esque popcorn moviemaking by the dozen.

*I believe Demi Adejuyigbe said it best “why y’all fuckin during an apocalypse anyway“.

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Three-Fifty Shades

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So, like, when I talk about the movie WatchmenWatchmen, there’s a certain compliment I like to apply to a movie I otherwise dislike: the actors seem to be under the impression that they are in a very different movie than the director is making and they’re in a better movie. And I think that same compliment/observation can be applied mostly to Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in the Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation series based on E.L. James’ BDSM based Twilight-fan fiction. At least to the female actors – Dakota Johnson was already settled into realizing this character she’s playing is ripe for ridiculous overdramatics in the “romantic” side of things, Marcia Gay Harden rips into the material for her own character with fearless camp, and new entry into the franchise Kim Basinger doesn’t seem entirely aware of the quality of the material she’s playing, but she seems suspicious enough of it to apply the most 1980s seductive villainess you could give to a movie this otherwise sober-minded. The male actors – certainly Jamie Dornan, who plays mysterious BDSM billionaire Christian Grey – are not as lucky, probably less willing to jump into camp as they are to jump into a goddamn river. Bella Heathcote herself is somewhere in the middle, understanding that her character is feeling an amount of pain that nothing in the script seems aware of and turning a two-dimensional Fatal Attraction knock-off into a wounded soul.

There IS a compliment I pay to Watchmen as well that can not be remotely applied to Fifty Shades DarkerFifty Shades Darker doesn’t feel visually interesting or inspired. This is a shame because the first Fifty Shades of Grey, I am embarrassed to say, kind of was even despite being boring as all hell. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, and production designer David Wasco all figured on the cleanest coldest domain for Grey’s demons to reside in, utilizing his last name as visual motif the way you’d probably have to to get anything out of this material. All three of these figures are sadly replaced in Darker by John Schwartzman, James Foley, and Nelson Coates respectively (but not respectfully) and they shoot and design Fifty Shades Darker like an Ash Wednesday version of a Sears commercial, attempting to oversell the “dark” tone of the material as a make-up for no visual character at all. And this is already going to get hamstrung by the fact that most of the material isn’t residing in the shadowy chrome sharp corridors of Fifty Shades of Grey* is luxury porn scored by the happiest uncomplex pop song you could imagine Taylor Swift and Zayn Malik writing intercut with the occasional knowledge that screenwriter Niall Leonard just quickly wrapped up another conflict and they have a huge amount of movie left “so lemme try to figure out what to do with this here helicopter” or “wait a minute I just realized I named this white fuckboi Jack Hyde, lemme collect on that”.

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Leonard, by the way, is notably the husband of James and so evidently more devoted to translating the very letter of his wife’s novel as sincere, straight-faced, and sober drama treating Grey’s sudden return into the life of Johnson’s publishing worker character Anastasia Steele as fiery romanticism when stalking you ex-lover and utilizing your financial power to buy her place of employment should be a red flag about the sort of toxically damaged individual you are. And again it’s not like it’s not a toxic workplace to begin with anyway when her creep supervisor is named Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). And credit where credit is due, Grey’s extensive amount of backstory exploring – rivaling that of, say, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – just how much loathing he appears to have towards his mother for not being sexually conservative and her personal struggles with drug abuse and all I can think of is if I can’t stand this sort of subtle slut-shaming in attempted trash like the Scream franchise (I’m gonna be honest and say if a movie is legit trashy in an enjoyable way, yeah, I’m probably gonna eat it up as silly junk, but neither Scream or Fifty Shades are that) what makes Leonard think I’m gonna go “poor baby” towards Grey for using that as the basis of a whole revolving door of pretty violent relationships that left enough scarring on an individual to make her an unfair secondary antagonist. I think it’s already been acknowledged by enough viewers how harmful this franchise has proven to be about portraying BDSM lifestyles and I can very much see why.

Aight, I’m getting heated. Lemme settle down a bit as I just turn this all around and wrap up my attitudes by reiterating. None of these unfortunate politics or dramatic self-tripping would bother me as much if the movie was maybe a little bit exciting to watch as a fabled “good bad movie” since the material is so askew to do it and God Bless Johnson and company for trying to herald its way into it, but Foley and Dornan and their departments clearly did not get the memo and have the more prevalent authorship in their self-serious treatment of the film. Most of all, Leonard’s inability to keep the juggling conflicts from braking the momentum of the plot and then inching forward and then braking back and forth unfortunately choke any possibility of making Fifty Shades Darker one entertaining experience.

*It’s insane how much hating Fifty Shades Darker is taking away an amount of my hatred of Fifty Shades of Grey. Still hate it, though.

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September 21, 1945… That Was the Night I Died.

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R.I.P. Takahata Isao
29 October 1935 – 5 April 2018

1988 – 30 years ago from this very day, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli was not yet the worldwide phenomenon it has formerly grown to be but it was in the middle of significant success on the wings of co-founder Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (pre-emptively a Ghibli production before Ghibli even existed) and Castle in the Sky. 3 years after its inception in 1985, they were in the midst of releasing what the future would see as their flagship film – Miyazaki’s cuddly and fuzzy My Neighbor Totoro. And yet doubts were made unto the box office potential of the affable children’s film so the second of the co-founders Suzuki Toshio made the decision to attach it as a double feature to the adaptation being produced around the same time for publishing house Shinchosha on one of their novels by Nosaka Akiyuki.

That adaptation was written and directed by Ghibli’s third co-founder, veteran animation director Takahata Isao, and it was called Grave of the Fireflies. And side by side with My Neighbor Totoro, the two stand as not only the greatest films of a studio that seldom produced anything but great films, but among the greatest animated works of all time.

And despite this superlative, Suzuki’s tenure as in-house producer of Ghibli had a lot of brilliant ideas, but this was unfortunately not one of them. While the films did not end up box office failures outright, Fireflies received a chilly reception towards family audiences because it meant following up on the movie that stars a giant furry benign forest God with two young children suffering horrifying severe afflictions from the aftermath of World War II. Or not, depending on which order the uninstructed theaters played them, though I can’t imagine being in the mood for something as jovial and harmless as Totoro so soon after witnessing Fireflies either. And so while it remained praised by critics and made enough money that combined with Totoro’s exploding merchandising sales continued the sail of Ghibli, the uninhibited starkness of Grave of the Fireflies‘ material alongside the fact that it was one of the movies which Disney did not purchase North American rights en masse from Ghibli’s parent company Tokuma Shoten (who did not own the rights) left Grave of the Fireflies to fall not into obscurity but a state of being underseen nevertheless.

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Those who did see it would begin faced with the image of a teenage boy in monochromatic reds and a baggy oversized military uniform facing the audience as his voice hovers over announcing his date of death before we watch him have to witness and relive that moment that his gaunt, broken body in rags collapsed in the middle of an apathetic and dismissive crowd in Sannomiya Station. His last words before his life leaving a corpse practically swept away by janitors is a name “Setsuko”.

Setsuko (Shiraishi Ayano), we will later learn, is the name of the young girl we meet quickly after in the same reddish sepia tone surrounded by the warming light of fireflies practically dancing to the first cue of Mamiya Michio’s delicate lullaby score, watching the boy’s death before being met by his spirit in an exuberant manner that implies long awaited reunion as we also learn that boy is her older brother Seita (Tatsumi Tsutomu).

This opening death of Seita is the most notable major liberty one can know taken by the novel’s author Nosaka in what was a semi-autobiography and self-condemnation of his inability to save his sister Keiko from dying of malnutrition in the wake of the Americans’ devastation of World War II and we watch Setsuko and Seita live out his story from the waning months of the war, starting out by their ill mother’s side* with their father absent fighting in the Imperial Navy afar. Having not read Nosaka’s novel, I cannot know the extent to which informs the writing of Seita as a well-meaning but irresponsible and unfairly unqualified guardian (there is a moment very early on where Seita attempts to cheer his sister through playing on playground bars foregrounded by Setsuko’s unbated tears that illustrates just what Seita is not prepared for), but it feels as though the literal directness of Seita’s failures are Nosaka’s blunt lack of forgiveness for himself while Takahata brings in a humane sympathy to Seita for trying to desperately make it out a situation he should never have been thrown into by a war he’s not very much involved in (though his father being in the war does give him investment and we do witness later in the film his response to the war’s results).

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That’s part of the ghostly element of Grave of the Fireflies: while we soon after witness the effects of war laid on undeserving lives, the fighting’s always at a distance and it makes the unnecessary element of the casualties we and the children witness wound us deeper. Even the early firebombing of their home in Kobe that opens the story proper violently (in more than a few ways, the film’s serene opening credits of the peaceful spirits on the train is interrupted by a smash to the loud American B-29s on their trail) is too oppressively one-sided with not a single Japanese shot fired on-screen back, just people running and hiding for their lives (there is one particular Japanese soldier who stands defiant shouting “Long Live the Emperor” that Takahata frames at a distance from heads keeping down from incineration and it only screws in Takahata’s vehement anti-war attitude in the film, portraying an action intended as defiant nobility to futile imbecility. That irony towards Japan’s doomed patriotism continues in a later Navy procession scene interrupting the children’s sleep.).

Amongst those casualties being their mother rendered in upsetting deep reds soaking over bandages dark enough to look dirty from the soot and smoke still suffered in an atmosphere of harsh browns and ash grays, a palette Grave of the Fireflies will visually maintain except in moments of peace like a major beach respite or a glowing yellow speckled image of fireflies comforting Setsuko in their . This death forces the two children into a hopeless situation of drifting over to an aunt that passive-aggressively points out the hardship of life after wartime being multiplied by mouths to feed, leading to the children’s departure into homelessness from their only possible shelter and their slow demise by malnutrition.

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For the most part, this doesn’t sound like material that necessitates an animated production perhaps but Takahata is not just using animation because he happens to work in that field. Seita and Setsuko are generally defined cartoon children (with unmistakably young voices), barely enough to recognize them from a crowd of suffering and to facilitate any emotions of joy and sorrow the film needs to weave through (especially Setsuko’s design, whose tears are the glassiest out of fairly big baby eyes), moving through photorealistic landscapes, either ruinous or wild or industrial in dark tones that make it look like a Totoro nightmare. Those contradictory elements only make the danger to these characters who are easy to look at much more real and at least me as a viewer more anxious**. And it’s outright dreadful to witness them slowly develop coarse lines showing the toll the situation is taking on their bodies, in last cases accentuating their emaciation and only populating more and more of their designs until their basically the very shell we watched die at the beginning of the film.

No, it is very much because Grave of the Fireflies is animated that it feels so very devastating and heartbreaking as a picture, animation used to remind you of the fragility of its characters in the immediate knowledge of their fate. With all that deliberation in the visuals, it just makes moments like a group of girls in bright dresses laughing oblivious to a child mourning a heavy loss or a delirious moment of solid rocks being mistaken as rice cakes feel somewhat like redundancy to the anguish and sorrow the film puts us through, except in its final images and moments Takahata’s humanism takes a restorative turn to suggest a form of release from the suffering Seita, Setsuko, and their companion ghost fireflies faced and a sense of completion that while not optimistic maintains a peaceful sense of absolution to a story told by a man who could not find himself to get it from his confession.

So Takahata generously gave it to him by re-telling it.

*That is perhaps the most prevalent similarity between Fireflies and Totoro: Both of them focus to some degree on siblings dealing with the distressing state of health of their mothers, though I think one can easily guess that Totoro has a significantly happier ending about it.
**If I may lose some credibility with readers, I feel Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Pixar’s CCO John Lasseter is notably a Ghibli fan and possibly the biggest credit to their stateside exposure, though his creative input on the movie was probably not that much) attempts this as well and actually accomplishes it for the most part and I am as a result an inveterate apologist for it.

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