Above the Rim

pacific_rim_2013_1080p_screencaps_kissthemgoodbye_net_1451

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.

tumblr_mv7iad8o4c1qf2cvko2_500

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).

5113c8cd964e0caae9cdfba54610758c

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.

pacificrim_trailer_hd_screencaps_0

The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room

rampage-600x313

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.

264515419-1

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.

016

A New Hope

star-wars4-movie-screencaps-com-436

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.

giphy

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.

starwars2

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.

star-wars-episode-iv-luke-leia-screencap-the-skywalker-family-12747310-1600-674

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).

3bf418249e8555f71e71ab82f554c5af

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.

acb02236d9cd066681453ea003e91c2d

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.

maxresdefault

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

I Can’t Hear Myself Think

how-big-are-these-creatures

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).

a-quiet-place

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).

qp3

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“.

a-quiet-place-review-featured

You Think This Is a Game?

jumanji-3-1024x429

I didn’t get to review Central Intelligence from 2016 before and that’s a hell of a shame. Because it was, not shitting you, my most-watched movie of 2016 by a lot. And this isn’t some “Oh my god, I can’t escape it” or “man, this movie won’t stop being on tv all the time” (although most of my watches of that movie were impromptu on HBO). No, Central Intelligence was a movie I fucking loved, warts and all. I left it with an unhidden appreciation for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who I already was in love with since I was a kid) and Kevin Hart (who I always suspected since Think Like a Man had a knack of comedy as a straight man foil, but never had much area to impress me until Central Intelligence). Central Intelligence was hella casual comfort food for me during a mostly blegh and uncertain year so I might be biased on that front, but it also helped me recognize a dynamic sort of friendly chemistry between the two actors I would not have expected and got me ready to appreciate whatever was next for their careers.

If my unapologetic love for Central Intelligence is the decision that causes anybody who reads this blog to decide I don’t know shit about movies, so be it. I promise I didn’t open with this to weed out my enemies about this film. Instead, I wanted to just establish that if there’s any such audience for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – the 2017 sleeper hit sequel to the 1995 original, once again co-starring The Rock and Hart – I’m it. I sat my ass right down on this seat because I was looking forward to another screwball go ’round between those two actors. What a pleasant surprise to me when it turns out that they are outstaged by Jack Black and Karen Gillan in the movie, but to explain that, I may as well outline the plot first from Chris McKenna’s script.

screen-shot-2017-06-29-at-11-06-53-am

Like the last film, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opens with salvaging itself from cries of blasphemy in having the famed decrepit board game be retconned into a video game… it actually transformed into one. After a teenager named Alex (Mason Guccione – and while I don’t think who plays him as an adult is eventful to be a surprise, it certainly surprised me. All I will note is that I love how Alex’s visual admiration for Metallica was a cue for our identification of the character and, lest you forget what is the namesake of this blog to begin with, it got a lot of points by me) in the late 1990s declares board games to be no longer cool and the sentient game thereby turns itself into something to accommodate Alex’s tastes and lure him into a disappearance.

20 years later in 2016, four stereotypical teenagers straight out of a low-effort high school picture all find themselves in detention for cheating in the case of the bookish nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff, man those Naked Brothers are sticking around, aren’t they?) and his former friend and now uncertain jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), mouthing off to her gym teacher in outsider Martha’s case (Morgan Turner), or just taking a phone conversation in the middle of her class in superficial popular girl Bethany’s (Madison Iseman). And lo and behold, the very Jumanji game is located in the school basement which their detention takes place and they unwisely turn it on, ending up sucked into the game like Alan Parish in the last film, but this time we actually see the world of the game. And as a new twist, they have been embodied by their avatars. And my interest in the movie is in the reverse order.

jumanji-10-1024x429

For, you see, The Rock, Hart, Black, and Gillan are those avatars – Spencer has become the brawny explorer Professor Smolder Bravestone (Johnson), Fridge his meek zoologist valet Dr. Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Hart), Martha has turned into the gorgeous combat-ready Ruby Roudhouse (Gillan), and Bethany into the obese cartographer Professor Shelly Oberon (Black). And in addition to all of the actors having something of a blast in their respective Republic Adventure Serial role, all of them are able to embody some form of their younger counterpart’s personalities so as to be recognizable to us: Johnson’s boyish anxiety at his predicament and wonder at the things he’s capable of doing in Bravestone’s body, Hart’s grasping at confidence even despite the good height advantage Johnson has over him, Gillan’s adolescent surliness (as well as a hilarious montage in which she has to practice the most ridiculous sexy strut to show how ridiculous she feels trying to fit into a gender role), and Black’s, like, everything. Black is ridiculously brilliant at playing femininity frequently and turning that into self-deprecating horror at the middle-aged man Bethany has become and the uninhibited infatuation she has with Bravestone or later the already-taken fifth avatar of Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonagh (Nick Jonas – so we have TWO alumni from young boy bands in the 2000s and yet nobody thought to put him in the same scene as Wolff). Guess who that one is?

Anyway, while those five are indeed the most enjoyable and entertaining of the bunch, the cast of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is still filled with the sort of pop-up appearances that would only amuse me in something this frothy like Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, or William Tokarsky popping in as extremely novel Non-Playable Characters (Darby especially is phenomenal at the rigidity and looped enthusiasm that makes his character feel like a program rather than a person, Tokarsky is just right at home with other exotic or dangerous looking mugs in a bazaar).

Of course, that’s the cast and they’re doing heavy lifting to provide a movie more fun than the rest of it allows. All my apologies to the usually extremely talented director Jake Kasdan, but the adventure movie he’s intent on crafting all around these performances doesn’t feel nearly as propulsive or engaging as one would hope. This is especially going to be the case when your cards are against you in structure (once again, the high school drama framing the video game narrative is kind of unfortunate, though at least it’s not as overstuffed as its predecessor film) and visual effects (which the previous film beats this sequel at and you will remember that I used those special effects AGAINST Johnson’s film). There’s obviously a possible argument that the effects are supposed to be unconvincing and cartoonish and not grounded and that just doesn’t stop these hippos and elephants and bugs from making my eyes water (the bugs though – at the control of Cannavale’s updated hunter villain Van Pelt – get to feel crawly enough to be effective).

So, fuck the adventure. Don’t come for the adventure, it’s episodic and you can feel each story beat thud in how it’s put together and the characters’ development in their personalities is shoehorned in. Come to hang out with four extremely funny personalities bounce off of each other while meeting with the demand of having to play young again and having a joy doing it. And I know I’ll be back the next time any of these four decide to collaborate once again. Maybe the Rock can bring them all back in his inevitable Fast and Furious spin-off.

hsaq26mtyqyslgy2udef

Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets-wallpapers-4

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).

screencap-valerian-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-08-screencap

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.

screencap-valerian-the-city-of-a-thousand-planets-13-screencap

Hey guys, it’s me, videogameDunkirk

dunkirk-movie-9

This late after its initial release (though there is indeed the possibility of an Oscar season rerun given its certainty in the Best Picture slate at this point in a weak year), it doesn’t really matter to housekeep what format exactly I saw Christopher Nolan’s World War II picture Dunkirk or what I’d recommend it in. But just for formality’s sake, I may as well state I was lucky enough to catch it in both regular 70mm projection and in IMAX digital format*. And celluloid purists be damned, after watching it in IMAX, I cannot imagine living without bigger format accommodating the full breadth of most of the imagery (one of the storylines most obviously was not shot on IMAX due to the clear logistics of the scene and so it’s in a 2.20:1 format opposed to the rest of the IMAX 1.90:1. The switch may be jarring to some, but what isn’t kind of jarring about Nolan and editor Lee Smith’s choice of editing style, anyway? I’ll get to that in a bit, but I just want to point out that while most of the imagery cut by the popular 70mm 2.20:1 version of the film is essentially empty space of sea and sky, that goes a long way in implying the length and distance our characters have from safety. Which ratchets up the tension in an anxious way.

That tension coming from portraying the real-life 1940 evacuation of British soldiers from the French shore of Dunkirk as the unseen German forces surround them during their invasion of France in World War II. And being a Christopher Nolan film, one of the mainstream filmmakers most fascinated with playing around narrative structure, the story of Dunkirk’s desperate waiting game and evacuation is told through three different strands and timespans: The Mole, following a week of the novel-named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find a way out of the mass of sitting ducks that is British soldiers trapped on the beach with on-edge private Alex (Harry Styles) and the uncommunicative Gibson (Aneurin Barnard). The Sea, following a day of the civilian ships commissioned from Weymouth to help the evacuation effort, amongst them Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), who end up finding a shell-shocked soldier stranded in the ocean (Cillian Murphy) who tries to force them to turn away from Dunkirk. And the Air, following three spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, and an uncredited Michael Caine in order of importance) as they fly for an hour to give air support to the departing ships and protect them from the hawking German stukas.

dunkirk-imax-screencaps-8

The intention is clear – Nolan wants a comprehensive look at the experience of the fearful lives in one of the most fearful moments in European history – made all the more clearer in the fact that none of these characters have much to inner life within them except the desire not to die, leading more to audience proxies for experiential intensity than any deep entities. Such was the source of much criticism towards Dunkirk and while they’re entitled to their opinion, I don’t really have a problem with it. I’m sure most audiences can relate to not wanting to die.

I’d be lying if I said I found the exercise a complete success, though To begin with, I can’t really read a logic to Lee Smith’s cross-cutting between the timelines. There’s not enough incident to the Mole storyline to believe the whole thing spans a week without narratively jumping a few days while the Air storyline is just an extended flight sequence with occasional interruption by Stuka fire. Neil Fulwood at Agitation of the Mind made mention of peripheral moments in the Mole storyline such as the bodies returning with the changing tide that could have been given more room to allow a tapestry of experiences, rather than just keeping it entirely restrained to two points of view – Tommy or the frustratingly patient commanding officer Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Smith doesn’t lose all that much momentum, but the temporal parameters just aren’t well-suited by his cutting.

That said, there is payoff. Significant payoff, one of the highlight sequences in 2017 summer cinema where the film is aware of the exact timepoint where the three storylines will be colliding and not only is the moment heightened and intense, but the movie’s anticipation of this begins to double down on pacing into the moment like a quickening perception of time, the sort of “holy shit!” fright you get entering a car crash. And boy oh boy does somebody have to give Smith all the credit for that.

dunkirk-movie-11

Credit as well given to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema in providing the sober reality of the entrapped situation with sandy greys and browns and blues without ever losing the sharpness of the imagery with the delicacy of a war photograph. The blues only inhabit the empty distance when Bolton declares how easily he can see home from the port. And aiding that photography in filling in the atmosphere is a sound mix of distant booms and explosions to jolt the viewer’s heart for every time the Germans thwart the desperate British troops’ runs for safety for punctuation or promise an endless chaos even beyond our characters’ occasional apparent safety. Or the stuka sirens alone signifying the dread growing in the coming gunfire to rain on our helpless subjects, doing a better job of that than the atonal paste of noise that Hans Zimmer’s score attempts to provide and then tries to pile on the hamfisted nature by establishing a progressive beat click. Beyond Zimmer’s work, Nolan and company have provided a comprehensive observation of the terrors of Dunkirk that pulls every clear technique short of gore to interject anxiety and stress into the film.

Dunkirk is truly not a waiting game of a movie, it’s full of motion and energy in a despairing and dire premise. And that energy forces the sort of violent shakes that an audience must respond to. It’s the sort of detached presentation that you forget the whole context until its second-to-last note of a bored reading of Churchill’s speech, but it’s not devoid of sentiment when it opens with a character who we are meant to assume will wipe his ass with Nazi propaganda or a character who we sadly witness die is venerated by his local paper. And it’s not as though the actors don’t do what they can to allow their sense of self shade the characters’ response as human (best performed by Rylance, Styles, Branagh, and Keough in that order). But it is a schematic adaptation of a historical event transformed into a vehicle for audience fright without any nationalism or patriotism (probably ideal in the context of Brexit). Some may find that a bit exploitative, but for me, at least on my first two viewings, I found it thrilling enough to bring me to empathize with every single face in the crowd of soldiers on that beach.

*I was indeed frustrated that the sole South Florida IMAX at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Science and Discovery didn’t have it in IMAX 70mm, but there’s a very embarrassing rumor that explains why.

dunkirk-imax-screencaps-6

Ragnarok n’ Roll

10-thor-001-nocrop-w710-h2147483647

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.

stills-from-thor-ragnarok-trailer-12

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.

screen-shot-2017-04-10-at-11-51-27-am-1-1024x425

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.

screen-shot-2017-07-22-at-10-08-53-pm

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

atomic-blonde-movie-charlize-theron-john-goodman

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.

atomic-blonde-movie-7

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.

atomic-blonde-movie-charlize-theron-james-mcavoy

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.

sarisin-bomba-atomic-blonde-turkce-altyazili-fragman_9937143-15510_640x360

Apes! Together! Strong!

apes1

Its conclusion is obviously less than a month old and there’s the test of time by which I swear most of my movie opinions on and I’ve clearly always been high on the hype before there was even a final chapter being filmed, but I still have no qualms in making the hyperbolic statement that the prequel/reboot trilogy of films for the famous Planet of the Apes franchise – 2011’s Rise of, 2014’s Dawn of, and now 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes – are the best popcorn movie franchise of the decade, possibly of the century (the only real competitors for that title is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the Bourne franchise and they’re both hindered by their most recent installments because disappointingly weak). They are surprisingly intelligent enough to trust their audience, they give such dignity to the characters inhabiting the roles to make the drama feel full of weight in the present tense rather than reminding us of what’s going to happen in the main franchise, and this is all done partly thanks to the very tippity top state of the art effects working so wonderfully in fleshing out our central characters in this film that, when we sink right into the story of escaped Ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his clan’s struggles to find a safe haven for them in the midst of the human’s killing each other out, we’re not really registering that we’re looking at digital air. We’re witnessing full-grown beings with their own emotions and inner commentary.

So, a full-on salute to both Serkis’ always incredible work as an actor inhabiting CGI characters, for his translated physicality and the subtle expressiveness of his face, playing just a powerful emotional anchor before the work of Weta Digital, which has evolved long since its early days with Serkis embodying Gollum, has provided us with no just Caesar as a compelling and emotive protagonist against heavy odds, but a whole damn race of apes with their own distinctive personalities (again with the help of a game cast) largely expressed in their physical wear and their gestures. I don’t believe Lake (Sara Canning) has more than maybe 15 minutes of screentime but she’s recognizable enough that there’s a good hour between when we leave her in the first act – as Caesar and others leave the main Ape tribe to seek vengeance against the militaristic humans who threaten to exterminate them – and when we see her again for the third act. And she’s just a new character, that’s saying nothing of the ones we already knew since Rise, like the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal and weary chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and the tough and brave gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). All three accompany Caesar on his quest to find the deranged Colonel (Woody Harrelson) who hunted for the tribe and left enough damage to have Caesar seeing red.

war-for-the-planet-of-the-apes-movie-11

It’s also mostly thanks to the fact that director-writer Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback (both returning from Dawn) know well enough the characters that producers (and former writers) Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver created in Rise to cash in on all of the emotional attachment we’ve invested in the characters and their quest to find peace in a world that devolved into chaos because of their sudden existence. This is a movie where the cost of their struggles starts to take a toll on Caesar in particular and it crushes War for the Planet of the Apes with a feeling of cold devastation, accented visually by a harsh white and blue palette provided by cinematographer Michael Seresin. It’s a landscape of winter suffering and often does Caesar and his friends’ journey end up with a checkpoint where they have to kill or watch somebody be killed from afar, abandoned to die in the uncaring landscape, a matter that begins to does not mix with Caesar’s desire for vengeance for the better and informs the character study that War for the Planet of the Apes becomes for most of its first half.

Aye, there is indeed a clear difference between the first and second half and that comes when they find the base of the Alpha-Omega faction that the Colonel leads (with the help of a sadly traumatized talking chimpanzee named Bad Ape played by the comedic Steve Zahn to try to translate as much of that character into levity without undercutting the sobriety of the film) and the movie becomes much better than the sometimes meandering preceding hour for it. The movie turns into a prisoner of war escape drama of the likes of The Bridge on the River Kwai – Pierre Boulle wrote the source novels for both Bridge and the original Planet of the Apes so that connection had to come eventually – and a battle of wills and motivations in the face of violent conflict and war, most especially aided by Harrelson giving the exact sort of performance I WISH with all my heart Marlon Brando had given in Apocalypse Now, espousing all his fatalistic attitudes on war and mercy in an attempt to psychologically breakdown Caesar and his role as a leader. It’s a frighteningly present embodiment of soldier psychology put on Circus Maximus and also a deft ability to turn an exposition dump of a role to a formidable antagonist.

But the second half’s also where Michael Giacchino shines in his orchestrations, gleefully evoking all the epicness of this grand finale to Caesar’s fateful journey. And before then, Giacchino is a boon to reminding us that this is bombastic effects heavy popcorn drama, not bogging us down in its misery. Giacchino’s presence helps make a dark movie so palatable and coaxes Reeves and all by earning the very optimistic final note that War for the Planet of the Apes leaves us on with all the finality that the movie already implied. Because sometimes the most entertaining movie can be the one that treats its characters and their efforts with dignity and that dignity that translates to the Planet of the Apes preboot trilogy is only its own reward.

gallery3-gallery-image