Yamada So Fat…

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Around the final two films of Takahata Isao’s time with Studio Ghibli and his career overall* – with a Kubrick-ian 14 years in turnover time between them – the animation director finally opted to do entirely away with the refined manga-inspired cel animation style that was Studio Ghibli’s default mode. In his decision to adapt Ishii Hisaichi’s long-running comic strip series ののちゃん (Nono-chan) under its original title となりのやまだ君 – literally translated to My Neighbors the Yamadas – Takahata had decided to undertake a new more hand-drawn look to the pictures that would resemble the comic strip much further than if it were solid blocks and perfect color fills and full backgrounds. The result was a movie full of personality within its rough handiwork, something that implied a direct tangibility to the image that gave a beating involved heart to the film.

But also because Takahata was not crazy, this was the first entirely-computer animated film in Ghibli’s output. Which does a lot for flattening the image so that we buy the characters and whatever background they have being on the same dimensional plane without losing the sketched texture of the lines.

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Despite that strong dedication to depth, My Neighbor the Yamadas is indisputably the most cartoonish of Takahata’s films since his early television specials of Panda! Go, Panda! and that gives it a lot more of a pleasant aesthetic for viewers of any age. Particularly given that it seeks to make its viewers relate to its subject, the Yamada family – child daughter Nonoko (Uno Naomi) who is the namesake of the comic, teenage son Noboru (Isobata Hayato), matriarch housewife Matsuko (Asaoka Yukiii), patriarch breadwinner Takashi (Masuoka Touru), and Matsuko’s elderly mother Shige (Araki Masako). All of them as wacky and broad as the round designs on them which affords an endearment to the film as well as the easy faded colors that inhabit the line drawings of each shot. Not to mention the steps My Neighbors the Yamadas takes to ease us into its cartoon styles by having Nonoko casually explain away the shape of Shige’s by drawing a pair of cosmic objects and then filling it out with her beloved grandma’s features, helping us to quickly associate the simplicity of Yamadas‘s design with shapes.

Which works out wonders for the sort of broad comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas is attempting to do.

May as well not beat the bush any further about the loose structure Takahata’s screenplay has: there’s no plot to My Neighbor the Yamadas. It’s all vignettes of various length and the film does nothing to truly suggest a true logic to the arrangement of the segments, although it is easy to sense the beginning and the end as a viewer. It’s remarkably easy viewing in general for something lacking a story, none of the segues to the next vignette feel abrupt and a lot of it feels like vague association with something that came up in the last vignette. Like maybe dinner might be a large part of one vignette and that drives us to the next vignette or two sequences in a row where one of the male members of the family forgets something while rushing to work or school. Takahata has somehow just cracked a flow out of segments and I’m sure there was a logic to his choices but it’s not apparent to the viewer and I don’t think it should matter.

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Though, if one actually sat down and noted the reasoning behind it, it could be remarked upon that the two major bookends involve a speech given by a character as affirmation and encouragement for a marriage, one of which hilariously remains fixed on the speaker as he fumbles and grasps for his forgotten words and his family watches in horror, the other giving way to a fantastical epic portraying the creation of a family as a Homeric adventure where the family is constructed through plants and fruits narrated warmly by an old woman (who I sadly cannot identify in the cast). That latter is the artistic peak of the film as it abandons the empty white spaces and fills the frame with depth and detail with pastel seas and stalks and fruits, but it’s not the only moment where Takahata decides to be ambitiously versatile: late in the film, a non-threatening but still tense moment of confrontation with a few juvenile bikers involves more lines and a darker palette with less (but impressively deliberate) lighting to knock the “fun” out of the moment without losing the cartoon aesthetic, followed by a kinetic “fantasy” action sequence akin to superhero movies.

But it must of course be constantly acknowledged that this is just as well aided by the fact that My Neighbors the Yamadas is gutbustingly funny in a very endearing and relentless sense with those above moments cushioning a familiarity with the family we have accomplished just by innocent and silly but wholly relatable incidents before tying it with a bow by a very celebratory musical number of “Que Sera, Sera” just to bring all its admiration of the Yamadas and how well they represent us right home as they laugh along into the sunset. It is near impossible to pick a “sweetest” moment in a film like this, but Takahata definitely selected quite a note to say goodbye to this family with.

Earlier this year, I’ve been privileged enough to rewatch the entire feature canon of Studio Ghibli (including the precursor Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and frustratingly excluding the Belgian co-production The Red Turtle) on the big-screen in the presence of an audience, most of whom (including my friend) were getting to experience this for the first time. My Neighbors the Yamadas was decidedly not the most packed house but it was possibly the most responsive I’ve seen the audience throughout the whole run. It is not as widely-seen (at least in the United States, I cannot speak to its popularity in Japan but I expect being based on beloved comics indicates commercial success), but I absolutely think this film deserves to be regarded as much of a crowd-pleaser as anything by Miyazaki. My Neighbors the Yamadas is certainly a gem of a picture that is infectiously affable and assuredly humorous in all its color and shape.

NB: I was finishing this essay on a flight to New York (after having a draft sitting here for months – sorry, readers) and I had playing in the background The Death of Stalin, where I recall a similar joke occurs as My Neighbor the Yamadas involving wearing pajamas underneath your suit.

NNB: LOL, that fucking NB was from an earlier attempt to complete this draft. If y’all ever want to hold me accountable for deadlines…

*Barring a single short segment made for the anthology film Winter Days, inspired by that favorite poet of Takahata’s to reference in his movies (including and especially this review’s subject), Bashō.

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X-Farce

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Deadpool 2 is directed by David Leitch and, without identifying him until the closing credits (beyond a pretty funny “Directed by One of the Dicks who killed the Dog in John Wick” at the tail of a an amusing Bond credits gag complete with overqualified self-serious theme song by Celine Dion), you could instantly tell that this was a product of one of the best action filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Almost immediately, we jump into a montage of complex and extravagant combat sequences involving our titular invulnerable red-jumpsuit-donning Merc with a Mouth’s (Ryan Reynolds) growing business as an assassin (apparently only for bad people like human traffickers and drug kingpins). Each in a very distinct color palette like the cold blue pool-surrounded spa and green reflective high-rise bars with frenetic energy that matches the character’s interminable speech, topped off by the very best setpiece in the whole film: a single shot following a man fleeing from the carnage in a beeline while we watch Deadpool wreak havoc and slaughter everybody in the background, jumping around, shooting and slicing indiscriminately, ignoring a man on fire, and stealing a chainsaw until the man escapes into a panic room.

Now, I am not joking when I say that’s the best sequence in Deadpool 2, which sounds unpromising considering it’s only the first five minutes of a two hour movie. And that’s why I am happy to say even then, Deadpool 2 is pretty entertaining and a significant upgrade from its mostly annoying predecessor. I mean sure, it still has the handicap of being a platform for Reynolds (credited as co-writer alongside the returning Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and I wonder how much of that is the Spinal Tap rule of “he ad-libbed so much he may as well be credited”) to deliver unimpressive pop-culture-based quips, make heavy efforts at vulgarity, or call unsubtle attention to the superhero clichés being mocked, thereby dampening the hell out of any true bite in the attempted superhero parodying.

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It’s also a pretty dense movie considering the punchline is just “lol, don’t all superhero movies do this stuff?”. It kicks off with the attempt by Reynolds and company to explore Wade Wilson’s (Deadpool’s true identity) exploration of grief and emptiness (catalyzed by an already pretty infamous story decision) and this is constantly undercut by Reynolds’ dedication to playing class clown under the mask, which IS the point of the character but demands a balance Reynolds is barely capable of providing. It’s improved by the subject of Deadpool’s first “X-Men” mission provided by his persistent recruiter of steel Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin (Stefan Kapičić for voice and face capture with Andre Tricoteux standing in on set for the CG character), the young distrustful Russell “Firefist” Collins played with magnificent effect by Julian Dennison. Dennison’s approach to the character is not all that different from his already charming turn as the contentious delinquent Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a character that had a good amount of pent-up trauma informing his behavior and decisions.

Dennison turns that familiar territory into a sense of nervy hurt from the second we watch him surrounded by cops threatening desperately to kill anyone who approaches him, later on revealing a confused lonely desire for a friend that leads to unleashing one of the film’s surprise antagonists. It’s pretty hard to feel like there’s a more convincingly human performance in the whole movie, even while he’s calling Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) “Justin Bieber” or joking about sneaking pens into the steely foreboding mutant prison The Icebox via his butt. It works because both his desire to appear hardened and his genuinely pain-fueled rage come from the exact same place.

So yes, Dennison is one of Deadpool 2‘s best secret weapons, but I haven’t even finished discussing yet another layer of this overglutted screenplay. For the unsmiling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future with his own vendetta against Russell, intent on killing the boy before Russell can set aflame to the venal fundamentalist headmaster (Eddie Marsan) that abused him and thus be locked on the path that ends with Cable’s family being massacred*. So Looper except Deadpool and Cable are coming from wildly different tones. Deadpool’s depression and newfound deathwish leads him eventually towards an epiphany that he can save Russell’s soul and move him towards a better path, leading to him being right in the crosshairs of Cable’s artillery requiring the recruitment of a special team of fellow mutants named X-Force.

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So there is a lot going on and Leitch moves through that material like one runs on a shallow lake: trying to rush as fast as one can, but having to push really hard to move one’s feet. That said, a good amount of the character work is pretty well-earned even despite the sloppiness with which they’re set up thanks to an intelligent cast: I’d daresay that Brolin might not be inventing the wheel here, but he’s a lot more interesting than his other big superhero tentpole of the summer. Brolin sells contrivances with sobriety just on the line between outrageous and self-aware so that Cable’s decisions later in the film feel like an evolution that mirrors Russell’s without killing the fun. Morena Baccarin takes a thankless treatment of her character (apparently also self-aware, though certain criticisms of her writing have caused the writers to shamelessly play stupid in interviews – SPOILERS for that link by the way) and turns it into the moral center to Deadpool’s arc, probably doing much more to make me feel for Deadpool’s sadness than Reynolds himself. So Leitch and company’s labored flopping in these plot tangents aren’t for naught: there is a sense of emotional satisfaction at the third act that I can’t recall feeling in a comic book film for a long time and I wasn’t expecting that for a screenplay mostly making me go “oh man, another joke or introduced character”.

I must admit to its credit these jokes got me laughing more often than the first Deadpool, whether a frankly mean-spirited punchline to the X-Force team’s motley of cameos (both of X-Men characters and screen personalities like the always welcome Terry Crews) or a physical gag involving cocaine or really any moment in which Zazie Beetz as Domino has to defend the existence of her superpower, which is being continuously lucky. I feel there’s more misses than hits because Reynolds’ motormouth is firing on all cylinders and T.J. Miller is present, but every once in a while even Reynolds scores a chuckle (Miller never does).

And once again, these are pretty exciting action setpieces on various levels. Leitch brings with him his dream team from 87Eleven Action Design: cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (the latter working with Dirk Westervelt and Craig Alpert though I assume they worked more on comedy or dramatic moments), all three of which know how to work together to give power to every piece of the constructed action and find room for cool money shots. In one scene, we get to watch Deadpool start with nothing but a brick and every face smash crunches on that soundtrack because Cable refuses to give him a gun, ending with the duo casually blasting the faces off their enemies with shotguns simultaneously. This is intercut with a fistfight of two CGI characters that gets momentum just by Sela’s camera movements, as if he’s being yanked around by those giants. Or even a slow-motion rube goldberg machine indicating the truth behind Domino’s abilities as she effortlessly action jumps her way through explosions and wrecks onto a moving van.

It’s certainly the messiest and least Leitch’s so-far three movies, but when you’re following up on Atomic Blonde, you have more than enough room to still deliver an enjoyable and charming enough piece of summer popcorn movie levity. That Deadpool 2 is able to accomplish that coming from such obnoxious material only proves my consistent faith in Leitch and his crew, Dennison, and Beetz. They were the reasons I rushed to the theater on opening night and the result was still a pleasant surprise.

*We do get to see Russell’s evil future self and I am very sorry to say that he is not played by Taika Waititi, which would immediately make this the best movie ever made.

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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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Cat People

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It has been at once amusing and bemusing to see a lot of the critical praise go to Black Panther for being “different” from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If there’s anything admirable about Black Panther‘s storytelling, it’s that it accomplishes being a great popcorn movie while being very much the same as the rest of the MCU’s style and elements. And it’s also co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler with evidently very little corporate interference (As they’d kind of have to. It’s not the first MCU film directed by a person of color – Taika Waititi just preceded Coogler with Thor: Ragnarok – but it’s the one where the most attention was brought towards it being a person of color telling a story about people of color), whose previous (and still best) film Creed also dealt with similar thematic conceits (a character dealing with the trials of his rise adjacent to an absent father) and similar aesthetical conceits (taking the elements familiar to the home franchise and arranging them in a manner that evokes surprisingly new concepts and emotions from the story).

In general, it is a film that takes the two most recent handicaps of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and surpasses them: their fixation on daddy issues and their inability to craft great action setpieces with any director not named Gunn or Russo. I’d dare say in the case of the former, it’s an active strength by expanding on that singular issue to observe much larger social elements. In the case of the former, it’s just disappointing given that Creed revolved around incredibly well-shot and edited fight sequences while Black Panther‘s are often painfully underlit and a climax involving a mess of three-tier cross-cutting and carrying some very dubious CGI.

But enough of that, I come to praise Black Panther, not to bury it, and it is a very easy film to praise. It takes place not very long after the events of Captain America: Civil War (where the character made its big-screen debut and blew nearly every other character out of the water as a presence) and wisely establishes enough of what occurred there to make it unnecessary to watch Civil War to understand what’s going on: the former Black Panther and King Wakanda T’Chaka (John Kano) was killed in an attack in Vienna, leaving his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to take up both the throne and mantle of their symbolic superhero Black Panther with uncertainty on how to helm the responsibilities inherent in these seats of power towards the isolated African nation he rules, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world.

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That sort of establishing of an African nation far more progressed than any other nation we can see in our real world (which Black Panther certainly wants us to bring Wakanda into and succeeds in making it convincingly grounded) allows for some visually rich designs in terms of production and costumes (provided by Hannah Beacher and Ruth Carter) indulging for possibly the first time in commercial cinema in the aesthetic of Afrofuturism which means exactly how it sounds: Black Panther is full of vibrant greens, reds, and blacks and especially blues bringing life to the East African biomes of grassplains and mountains and waterfalls, populating it with brilliant coded hierarchal robing and architecture that looks like the World Fair’s dreams. The design team wisely weave in between the two concepts by finding common ground in the generous usage of lines and fluid movement through hues they can utilize, most tremendously in sequences involving the ancestral plane certain characters visit – a dusky purple sky blanketing a serene serengeti landscape.

It’s quite possibly the MCU movie to date with the most visual personality and so soon after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But here I am, getting so dazzled by the designs of Black Panther that I interrupted my recap.

It is in fact insane that Boseman turned out to be possibly the best thing about Captain America: Civil War when he’s not even the best performance in his own movie and not for lack of trying. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay toss T’Challa a barrel of new political pressures that popping up one by one and give Boseman leeway to construct them into a thoughtful arc where we can actually watch T’Challa’s stance go from point A to point B (and yes, this is a political film. Not a VERY political film because Disney is scared of politics*, but its themes take observation of the state of race relations in the world from its very first scene and an awareness of Africa’s history of colonization and applies them both to the current closed borders refugee matter).

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The biggest of those pressures happens to be Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an armed forces veteran from Oakland, starts making waves enough to challenge T’Challa’s claim to the throne and bring out very violent skeletons from the late T’Chaka’s actions that T’Challa must deal with in his father’s stead, taking a leaf out of Creed‘s book once again to explore a father-son conflict with an absent father. In fact, there are two of them as Killmonger reckons with the source of all his rightful anger and hate. I’ve heard it used as a criticism that Killmonger’s clearly Black-American urban style in costume, dialogue, and performance is a coding against the sort of young African-Americans that are most targeted by police brutality in America and I honestly think that’s ignoring how much Coogler (who shares Stevens’ cinematic Oakland origins and so probably imbued a lot of his background into the character) is possibly more generous to Killmonger’s point of view than T’Challa’s**. It’s not hard to figure why Jordan, Coogler’s regular weapon of choice actor, is cast as Killmonger (other than the fact that Black Panther is already cast) and with his powerful and aggressive performance comes a perspective of the marginalized individual outside of Wakanda’s borders begging for resolution (a perspective the film aligns with sympathetically) and a core of soulful hardness most prevalent in a late scene shared with the brilliant screen partner of Sterling K. Brown (my first time seeing him perform after hearing so much hype about the actor and the hype is founded in my opinion).

Jordan, Boseman, and Brown are of course only a few of a full-on cast of extraordinary performances acting as the leads to their own stories on the side: Forest Whitaker’s secret-holding priest, Daniel Kaluuya’s frustrated herder, Letitia Wright’s scene-stealing intellectual, Winston Duke’s charming rival, Danai Gurira’s strong-willed warrior, even Andy Serkis playing Mel Gibson all embody different strands of life for T’Challa to look over and consider in his arc. Which is probably the last and greatest credit I feel I can give to Black Panther, Coogler and Cole can facilitate the narrative and themes all day and Beacher and Carter can create this dimensional environment, but it’s the cast themselves that have to inhabit it and sell every inch of its liveliness, its stakes, and its humor and I don’t think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever had an ensemble more qualified to provide that in spades.

*I believe Carvell Wallace of the New York Times said it beautifully – “The film arrives as a corporate product, but we are using it for our own purposes.”
**This is also much more apparent in the official original soundtrack created by Kendrick Lamar, of which only two songs appear in the film itself so it’s slightly extraneous but still a good and illustrative work of how Black Panther grabs hold of Killmonger’s point of view and gives it a validity even despite being unambiguous about his villainy. It is also, because I’m sure certain people around these parts know I’m a Kendrick fan and so will probably ask me, a decent album though significantly less revelatory or engaging than anything else he made in his career.

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Christmastime Is Here

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I don’t watch TV very much and I don’t really celebrate Christmas except depending on who I’m dating at the time and if they celebrate. I do certainly admire the season though, especially if I’m spending it in an environment that’s nice and chilly and cold and bonus points if it’s snowing. It is certainly my favorite time of year. And regardless of if I’m attending a Christmas party that year or not, I’m gonna be spending more than a little bit of time watching certain favorites as a force of habit, namely holiday TV specials. Y’know, the kind that were animated and best made in the 1960s (though not by any “objective” standard. Even today, TV animation on a budget is pretty rough as is but Rankin/Bass’ stop-motion certainly tried to circumvent this). They’re short and sweet so I can watch enough to fill an hour before I sleep the night before Christmas and they’re a nice little amount of mood to continue on for the rest of the season. And I’ll especially give TV specials one thing over films:

If it weren’t for TV specials, I wouldn’t enter every winter season without the song “Christmastime Is Here” playing in my head. And I’m very happy to have that be the theme song of my winters, nice and falling singular piano notes apply a melody in my head to the imagery of snowflakes gently dropping to the ground. Just one piano tune over and over, something to cement early in my life the idea that jazz is always the best Christmas music, and Vince Guaraldi was the genius to make me think that.

Guaraldi’s soundtrack – which also includes “Linus and Lucy” another very close theme song to my childhood and a children’s choir performing the hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (there is also a children’s choir involved in “Christmastime Is Here” but my mind just goes to the piano underneath and its wonderful and evocative simplicity) – is not the only great thing that the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas gave me, but it is the thing that sticks most to me. If it were not for the special, I don’t see myself being so enamored with jazz at such a young age that I would find it calming or atmospheric and all through the best kind of minimalism.

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If it weren’t for A Charlie Brown Christmas, I also would probably be a lot more cynical about Christmas than I actually am as an adult who has no intentions of religious alignment in his life and is in many ways actively against religious institution. I’m sure one more cynical about religion than I am could probably be dissatisfied as the makers feared with the solution to the loveable child blockhead Charlie Brown’s usual depressive woes, this time centered around the Christmas season, as simple as (SPOILERS FOR A TELEVISION SPECIAL OLDER THAN MY DAD WHICH I DON’T THINK PEOPLE WATCH FOR THE PLOT ANYMORE) the blanket-dragging child Linus reciting from the Gospel According to Luke and poof! There’s Charlie Brown’s answer to the missing meaning of Christmas, but it IS true in a literal sense and it’s a spirited and confident reading from a child! A legit child actor, Chris Shea, was able to stand and deliver the Bible communicating the full and expressive meaning of the Shepherds’ Annunciation of the Nativity of Jesus and as somebody who grew up in Islamic Sunday School watching a lot of fellow kids trying to memorize Qur’an, I can’t imagine most of my teachers would have deigned for that sort of awareness of the material and declarative reading.

That’s kind of the miracle of A Charlie Brown Christmas that makes it so pleasant for me. The entire cast from Peter Robbins as Charlie on down to Sally Dryer in a one-scene part delivering a proud insistence she never sent Charlie a “Merry Christmas” are all young children around the 9-to-11-year-old range and they have these blocks of dialogue expressing existential crises and criticisms of capitalism and “commercialism” (I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word “commercialism” at their ages) that they have to deliver and they ace it with flying colors. Emphasis on the right elements while still sounding wholly like the stuff children would say with only the slightest hint of a hand tipped in maturity.

Credit it to director Bill Melendez for knowing how to direct voice acting, credit it to Charles M. Schulz – creator of the original Peanuts comic strips series that A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of and writer of the special (the television special was made right at the height of the franchise’s popularity) – who would know these characters better than anybody else in the world and knows just the right amount of character and youth to imbue into the writing, credit it to whichever casting director was able to pull in this many intelligent young actors who could certainly know how to express thoughts like these, and of course credit it to these kids for pulling it off most of all and instantly sticking to our ideas of how these characters sound. The moroseness in Brown’s voice, the bold egotism in Lucy’s, these are just impossible to remove from the characters as I remember them, even when I’m just looking at the comic strip that reliably entertained me from my own childhood onward.

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I am, truth be told, shocked that I’m nearing the end of my praise for my definitive work of Christmas-based pop culture and only now mentioned Melendez. Melendez’s animation work makes the best with what little they had, pushing the budget and month as far as he could, maintaining the flat 2-dimensional primitive stylizations of the hand-drawn comic strip so that it’s all in one plane, thereby establishing the style that every single Peanuts production since would have to live by lest they mess with tradition. And yet there’s still motion and spacing that Melendez is willing to play with, filling out an entire skating rink with individual (if still repeated motions) including a wonderful amount of liberty taken with Charlie’s beloved beagle Snoopy as he glides over the light blue ice (including a wonderful moment where he drags the other characters in a line all across the shimmering screen) or the memorable setpiece of everybody dancing to Linus, Pig Pen, and Snoopy playing “Linus and Lucy”. In fact, if it probably wasn’t for Melendez’s conservative usage of lines and colors in a manner that feels lovingly personal, it probably be able to sell the cuteness behind Charlie Brown’s choice of Christmas tree for the Christmas play, a lonely bent stick with barely peeking out of its branches. In a special that’s hardly the stuff of immaculate craft, this little tree that somehow means something to Charlie Brown doesn’t feel quite as bad and that means we sympathize with the care and adoration he wants his friends to give to the tree as well.

So, yeah, it’s not perfect. The audio feels like an unfinished element with missing sounds from what we’re viewing and very apparent seams where we hear what lines of dialogue are put together from separate takes (although there is a terrific gag of Snoopy giving his best impression of several different animals). And I’m sure some look for a more detailed design or fluid kind of animation from their animation, but I can’t see myself ever being dissatisfied with a Christmas night sitting down and playing this. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a television special that wants us to understand the meaning of Christmas and delivers it not just in substance but in the amount of soul that every single person involved in this special put into it. Melendez, Schulz, Guarini, and all their company gave us this one undiluted package of Christmas joy. I couldn’t feel any more merry after watching it if I tried.

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Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

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It is a relatively good thing, I think, that I saw Luc Besson’s summer space adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets before I was able to start reading the original Franch comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières by the name of Valerian et Laureline*. It is a brilliant and wonderful work of pulp artistry and adventure storytelling that Valerian certainly lives up to in more than a few ways, but also stands as the kind of visual swashbuckler comic literature I wish I had access to as a child. That I read it after seeing the movie being a good thing is due to how little the characters within the comic series – dashing handsome and tall Valerian and red-haired ingénue from the Middle Ages Laureline – do not at all look similar to Besson’s leads, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne. I like to hope that wouldn’t have bothered me, but just to be sure, the fact that I saw Valerian before reading them ensured that the only reason I’d fell the leads are miscast is because of their performance.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a damn great movie in my eyes, regardless of what the detractors of the movie think. It is more than a bit likely to show up on my top 20 of the year and it’s easily my favorite space opera of essentially the four major ones we’ve received this year (the others being Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and sadly Star Wars: The Last Jedi in that preferred order). And yet the one thing I can’t find myself to argue with detractors about (and indeed there are plenty) is that the leads don’t work. Less so Delevingne, who takes command of every moment like her character’s name wasn’t removed from the title with intelligence but would probably do much better with a co-star that she could actually have romantic chemistry with. It’s more DeHaan, not only being unable to pass for dashing anything but instead looking like the son of Peter Lorre in all those baggy eyes and delivering his macho lines like he’s barely out of breath. Lines that, mind you, are essentially a space soldier harassing his partner and only the best kind of screwball chemistry would make it feel less objectionable. DeHaan, an actor I overall love and want to see in more movies (who definitely helped with this year’s earlier A Cure for Wellness) is not that actor.

An out-of-place lead actor is certainly not something I could hold a moviegoer accountable for being unable to ignore, but in truth my love for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is one that supersedes all of that just as much as my love of Star Wars does likewise. If I ever go to watch a space opera because I want compelling substance, please slap me in the face because something’s wrong with me. Valerian delivers an overwhelming amount of world-building in its gaudy biome designs of different regions in its titular International Space Station (we witness the growth of the original Space Station into this wondrous cornucopia of alien cultures and civilizations in an opening montage to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that even detractors find lovely, slowly having several of Besson’s usual collaborators like Louis Leterrier and Olivier Megaton welcome several disarming but lovely extra-terrestrials in the spirit of galactic brotherhood).

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Hell, the moment that the trailer featured a long-shot sequence of Valerian crashing his way past walls separating several different environments and habitats, a variety of smooth surfaces, bold various colors, and dazzling lighting servicing several the kind of cartoonish but ambitious and engrossing CGI convinced me I was going to watch this movie in 3D and the second scene in the movie inviting us to explore a shiny shimmering beach planet where the very skin of its silver natives glows and pearls flow like water before showing off the depth of field by having a violent and explosive invasion occur is when I was certain I made the right decision.

See, I don’t really have a problem with Besson’s screenplay. It’s certainly slightly less stupid than Lucy (which I also stan for) and has a certain subplot that involves a detour introducing us to a wonderfully hammy turn by Ethan Hawke and a crazy fun outfit-switching dance performance by Rihanna (and whatever dance double they had)**, but its main purpose is to utilize the Ambassador of Shadows storyline into the making of a world-building adventure from setpiece to setpiece – here’s a trans-dimensional bazaar where Valerian has to interact with one dimension while inhabiting another to extract an item followed by a monster chase, here’s deep sea dive filled with imaginative sea life before Laureline has to wear some brainsucking jellyfish as a helmet, here’s a Gilliam-esque throne room for a couple of laughs while troll-esque aliens feed their picky king, and so forth. The context isn’t what has to make these experiences joyous to me, Hugues Tissandier’s construction of these sets and creatures does more than enough to do so and then Alexandre Desplat’s sparkling epic score lifts the film to ethereal heights (and it’s not even his best score of the year given The Shape of Water), the sort of spectacle driven cinema that gets butt in the movies to begin with.

Listen, if something as ridiculous looking and sounding as Valerian was not going to be your thing, that’s alright. I stan for the likes of Jupiter Ascending so it could hardly be unexpected that I walked out of it feeling my summer was made. It’s utterly shallow, but it’s also transfixingly vibrant. It doesn’t have as comforting an audience surrogate as Bruce Willis in Besson’s previous The Fifth Element, but if you’re willing to just go for the ride without anyone to relate to, you will still find yourself sucked in. You may or may not have to go into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets with a very specific idea of what you look for in movies, but luckily it provides exactly what I look for: a brilliant living expansion of worlds and domains for which we can witness setpieces unlike anything we ever have seen before and possibly won’t see since.

*I will go on the record as to pointing out that I find removing Laureline from the title of the film to be a dirty fucking move, especially since I think the argument can be made that Laureline has more screentime overall.
**Between this, Girlhood, and American Honey, movies are really trying to make me overlook my dislike for Rihanna’s music and turn me into a fan of hers. It’s working.

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Ragnarok n’ Roll

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Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, STinG isn’t in love with the new Taika Waititi-directed film the way he wanted to and has to reckon with whether or not it was as huge a disappointment as he expected.” How did we end up here? Well, it’s kind of a long story.

I was expecting a Taika Waititi movie. Well, that’s not such a long story after all, never mind.

And to be fair, Thor: Ragnarok – the third film in the Thor series and 17th in the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – is not not a Waititi film. But it’s interrupted by the side of it that’s a Kevin Feige-produced MCU film. There’s no reason to hold that against Thor: Ragnarok since the result is still roundly the best Thor film and the out-and-out funniest MCU picture in their whole lineage, but the fact that it’s unfortunately short bursts and portions does leave me a bit disappointed with the result.

For one thing, it takes its sweet ass time getting to the good stuff. The previous Thor film, The Dark World, and the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, left so many threads open ended that co-writers Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost had no choice but to address and resolve from square one the threat of Ragnarok – the end of Norse home world Asgard to be brought by demon Surtur (mo-capped by Waititi, voiced by Clancy Brown) – and the absence of Thor’s father and ubergod Odin (Anthony Hopkins) replaced by Thor’s trickster step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who has now reached the sort of casual obligatory tone in playing this character as Robert Downey Jr. in playing Iron Man), neither of which are the main conflict of the story for our thundergod himself (Chris Hemsworth). For a movie where Waititi claimed in an interview that his modus operandi was to ignore the previous (and frankly) mediocre Thor films, Ragnarok is certainly happy to do a lot of clean-up.

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Now granted, the movie is still joyful and funny at points, as Hopkins does a hilarious job imitating Hiddleston and we witness a cult of personality formed around Loki with a wonderful play featuring three brilliant cameos I must remain mum over for the poor souls who haven’t seen Ragnarok yet. But the fact that we also get the obligatory MCU character cameo before Odin can proper introduced us to the villain in a very clunky monologue is quite frankly annoying and a nuisance in storytelling.

The villain herself is Hela – Odin’s firstborn daughter and the goddess of death – and played by the brilliant Cate Blanchett in full ham and scenery-chewing glory commanding every fucking shot she gets to appear in effortlessly and the sad thing is that Hela is the only reason I enjoyed the Hela/Asgard end of the story. Because quickly after her appearance the film splits based on her expulsion of Thor and Loki and her subsequent conquest of Asgard and attempts to expand her realm being thwarted by the brave Bifrost guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). That’s her side of the story and it’s mostly just a reminder that evil stuff is happening that Thor must stop, while meanwhile, Taika Waititi is making a Taika Waititi movie (that just so happens to be a low-key adaptation of the “Planet Hulk” story) on the industrial trash planet Sakaar where Thor and Loki have landed.

Ruled by the flamboyant Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster (but it may as well just be recognized as Jeff Goldblum himself), Sakaar turns out to be home to a vicious gladiator deathmatch tournament that Thor is shanghaied into participating in against the grand champion: The Incredible Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo). And this reunion is the catalyst to Thor’s attempts in building a team to save Asgard with Hulk and his troubled scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner, the comfortably lucky Loki, an alcoholic and disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, best in show that’s not Goldblum and a born action star), and a failed revolutionary yet infectiously friendly rock monster gladiator named Korg (Taika Waititi) and his robotic sidekick Meek.

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Sakaar isn’t necessarily the stuff of brilliant visual craftsmanship – the lighting is mostly as muted as any other MCU film beyond a mindblowing flashback sequence and this is not the best effects work of the franchise – but the physical design of it is absolutely fun to look at in all of its shapes and mounds and kitchiness, full of a mix of tones between bazaar and industrial and nightclub. It’s clear that Waititi himself walked into this production ready to make a space opera and he sure as hell gave his all, providing a wonderfully colorful and bouncy world full of a variety of bipedal alien races. All of which tuned into a vibrant weirdo tone that takes a few leafs out of the 1980s thanks to Goldblum’s absolute relaxed rock star of a performance and Mark Mothersbaugh’s techno epic of a score. And with a hangout atmosphere courtesy of Waititi’s wonderfully amiable brand of humor, best personified in Korg’s lovable presence even when in the middle of a fight trying to act polite. It’s exactly the MCU film I was waiting for and unfortunately it only lasts as far as the movie spends time in Sakaar.

This is not to say Asgard is a slouch in design, but Waititi’s heart is so obviously in Sakaar and not Asgard that returning to Hela’s storyline where she has literally no momentum thanks to Heimdall’s efforts feels a severe buzzkill to what is otherwise an extremely fun movie. That doesn’t override the fact that the sum of it all IS that is a poppy concoction that’s even able to make the best of the usually unbearable Hemsworth, who proves so much more capable at comedy than he is at drama. Nor is it unclear that there are full consequences to Ragnarok, ones that feel a lot more permanent than the last few times in the MCU where it seemed like consequences of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier were just brushed aside. Whatever obligatory MCU drama we have to push through, it’s rewarded by a much more engaging film than at least half of the MCU preceding it and while it seems like a good illustration of how studio interference obstructs with auteurism, the biggest thing I took away from Thor: Ragnarok is that we should give Waititi money for science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas that have really personable talking rock creatures in a Kiwi accent.

P.S. Rachel House from Hunt for the Wilderpeople (my favorite Waititi film) is also in this playing no less a psychopath than her character there and I’m rooting for her to be in, like, everything now.

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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?

Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.

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You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.

And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.

How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.

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Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.

There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.

There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.

So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.

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There’s No Place Like Homecoming

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There is a beautiful moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming, perhaps my favorite moment in the whole film where the youngest-looking incarnation of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) yet is trapped under a hell of a lot of rubble after a building collapsed on him in an image nearly reminiscent of the famous cover of Amazing Spider-Man #33 (something I doubt was unconscious on the part of the mothership company Marvel themselves finally getting to co-produce the superhero after all of these years). And there’s obviously no way Spidey won’t make it out of here but for once Holland breaks away from his otherwise joyously bubbly and bright performance as the young kid to start crying for help under the weight and selling the threat of his crushing death, before getting to see his makeshift Spider-Man mask under a puddle of water with his reflection filling out half of the watery darkness, thereby recreating another famous Spider-Man image halving Peter’s face and the Spidey cowl as one. And it’s a very inspiring and self-reflective moment for the character that assures both Parker and the audience and gives him the resolve to get himself out of this situation.

And the movie redundantly ruins this wonderful moment with a hamfisted voiceover reprise of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. both literally and metaphorically phoning his performance in) saying “if you’re nothing without this suit, then maybe you shouldn’t have it.” Which is not only a shitty misfire of tone in its condescending wording, even if it’s an attempt to re-establish the message, but it’s also emblematic of exactly how I feel about Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s not exactly a classic in the sense of Raimi’s works, but it’s a movie with its own strengths that could stand on its own if only the Marvel Cinematic Universe would kindly stop butting in every once in a while.

I do have to give Spider-Man: Homecoming (and that title keeps me just shuddering at the unnecessary shade of Marvel Studios towards Sony Pictures) some credit. As would be common sense, producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal, director and co-writer Jon Watts, and the dizzying six man revolving door of the writing team knew that it would be completely unnecessary and redundant to re-establish the origin story of one of the most famous superheroes of all time and yet Homecoming feels every bit like an entry tale for our favorite webslinger. And it wouldn’t be able to do that without the greater context of the Avengers and how Spidey is THIS close to earning Stark’s approval and joining them, but I wonder if it would be a bad thing if we didn’t have that?

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It just feels so ultimately divorced from the truly stellar element of Homecoming: the “friendly neighborhood” aspect. Holland is so boyishly charismatic and engaging within the part that just having him interact with anybody – the people on the streets in which he helps out, the A.I. in the suit Tony Stark gifts to him, the overabundance of high school friends that doesn’t fit my idea of “outsider” Peter Parker but certainly gives us a lot of charming high schooler material – is not only wonderfully entertaining, but reverses the scope of the whole MCU and gives a sense of tactility to the community sense of localized superheroes, a concept that doesn’t really come to play anywhere else in the MCU except their Netflix series.

The entire cast is the best salesman on this premise: Holland wrestles eagerly with this sense of anonymous celebrity, Michael Keaton as the villain Victor Toomes has a sense of frustrated blue-collar workaday escalation to his aggression (his one big EVIL moment where he kills a man on-screen is undercut by him mistaking the weapon he used and I don’t think it’s an accident that Keaton sells that surprise very well). Donald Glover, in a two-scene cameo, essentially delivers the tired inconvenience you’d expect New York would have facing alien forces and consistent destruction. The strength of Homecoming is in the smaller human elements, those touches of a living city underneath (even if it’s Atlanta playing New York City in a conspicuous way). It is no accident that the best setpiece in the whole film is a comical one of Spidey finding it very hard to swing webs in a suburban residential area and forced to superpower-Ferris-Bueller his way around, a wonderful moment of character and geography.

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It is unfortunately the ONLY great setpiece, which is a shame because anybody who has seen Holland at work on stage knows he’s certainly the most athletically capable of all of the screen Spider-Men. But Watts and editors Dan Liebental and Debbie Berman just don’t give him his due, never finding a true rhythm to the moment whether it’s a bank robbery, a jet heist, or scaling the Washington monument and never finding dynamic ways to represent the high-flying physicality of Spidey the way Holland’s hollerings do so, nor does it bother to cover up its CGI much beyond the “night time means no lighting to see it”. And that’s really disappointing for a climax as restrained as this film’s.

I can’t say it feels less like a product than Marc Webb’s time with the character, but it also is a lot more fun with it. Sure, the aggressively eager-to-please nature of having every character that isn’t Mac Gargan (Michael Mando) be able to perform a quick gag seems kind of insincere, but it’s nothing less than platonic. Spider-Man may have found himself in a new prison confined to being another stepping stone to the next Avengers movie, but he seems to at least be having fun there and he’s got great company, so there’s no big problem. It could be worse.

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Now THAT’s What I Call a Fiasco

Note: Anybody who can tell me what famous Spidey moment the title of this review comes from wins my eternal respeck.

Other Note: This is re-do of a previous review from when I first saw this movie in 2012 because maaaaaaaaan, it’s not only too long, but a godless mess of a ramble.

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Spider-Man, like any comic book icon, is a versatile malleable figure. He means different things to different people, they have a different idea of what his defining trait may be, and many artists and writers have put in different contexts and styles just to twist his imagery around as much as Batman. Now for some people, their idea of Spider-Man’s defining trait is that he is a unrelentingly quippy sort and that means that Andrew Garfield was (until Tom Holland thankfully disabused them) the best screen Spider-Man. And for sure, Garfield might have been able to foreground the sarcasm of high schooler Peter Parker behind the mask (though claiming Maguire’s Spidey wasn’t humorous and full of levity is an outright lie – he was directed by Sam Raimi, the creator of one of the quippiest heroes cinema has been blessed with), but he’s not my ideal Spider-Man because I have a different concept of the defining trait of Spider-Man.

That trait being he’s not a complete piece of shit*.

To be fair, Garfield did not go full throttle on making Spidey a despicable son of a bitch. That happened in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But rest assured, when it comes to his first go in the red tights for Marc Webb’s (a director’s title I’m all but certain feels ceremonial) The Amazing Spider-Man, there is nothing to his performance that feels living beyond his sarcasm and his casual ability to look like him and co-star Emma Stone (as the doomed first love Gwen Stacy) have some kind of affection for each other. This is definitely informed by the fact they were, at the time, in a relationship and not any of the giggling dialogue afforded to them by co-writer Steve Kloves (he focused on that side of the script most while co-writers James Vanderbilt and a definitely begrudgingly returning Alvin Sargent worked out other areas). Beyond that, his Spider-Man is a empty mass of high school cool tropes that seem out of the ordinary for the character except in a desperate attempt to mangle some protagonist to a desperate film.

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The Amazing Spider-Man is not as bad as I thought it was on first watch. It’s clear Webb and his studio puppeteers (this movie and its sequels have studio interference fingerprints all over it) was not flailing around, but it’s a soulless product. Time passing by, especially in the face of all the Sony leaks and the eventual entry of the character into the MCU, has only shown that this was Amy Pascal and company trying to hold tightly to the character by implying the promise of a further movie franchise, with the subplot on Peter’s parents (something that always alarmed me as so dismissive of Martin Sheen and Sally Field’s potential in the roles of Uncle Ben and Aunt May), the deliberately illogical overshadow on a hologram of Norman Osborn, the terribly out-of-place mid-credits scene, and so on. It’s like Iron Man 2 in those self-reflexive attempts of foreshadowing, except less confident and without the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. to guide us through it. And that’s what really gets under my goat about what “universe-building” has done to this decade of popcorn cinema: it leaves us with only half a story.

The Amazing Spider-Man feels like the bare minimum of what you need to create a plot (with half of the beats already done to more emotional effect in Raimi’s first film) where the content goes no deeper than “Peter becomes Spider-Man to avenge his Uncle’s death, battles the Giant Lizard that Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) has become, and courts Gwen.” You’d only need one more sentence to throw in “Gwen’s police captain father George (Denis Leary) is a bigger dick than Spidey and wants to arrest him, because something something vigilante.” Nothing about it has the same explosion of personality Webb’s earlier debut (500) Days of Summer got to have and everything is just calculated to get this movie out in time to hold tightly to the Spider-Man property and make it seem like it’s still relevant.

Actually, there is some kind of tone in it but it’s obnoxiously self-serious. It almost feels as parodic as Spider-Man 3 except without the parody. Underlit scenes in alleys and sewers, attempts to make Parker’s isolation a lot gloomier than Raimi, even the costume went like three shades down in darkness. There’s nothing that gives me less confidence than realizing the aesthetic for The Amazing Spider-Man could go hand-in-hand with Trank’s Fantastic Four and not thank my stars Kevin Feige rescued a sinking ship. The only true moment of inspiration comes from when Parker begins his ascent as Spider-Man and we witness his playground treatment of New York in first-person camera. But that’s the only place for fun in The Amazing Spider-Man‘s world and it’s back to making superhero movies feel like an obligation in one of the most disappointing moments in the genre’s history.

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*There are many defenders of Garfield that sit on the thesis “Spider-Man is supposed to be a dick, Maguire was too nerdy”. Same as the Tobey Maguire crying meme, I flat out ignore such an asinine complaint and suspect they never picked up a comic in their life, let alone a Spider-Man one.