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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 800-Pound Gorilla in the Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some infinities are bigger than other infinities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A New Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Ocean Man

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There’s gonna be something weird about finally writing about The Shape of Water after it had won its Oscar, as though I’m raining on somebody else’s celebration since I don’t have much happy things to say. But, I plan to eventually review every Best Picture winner and I need to get this out of eventually. And I may as well be happy that Guillermo Del Toro, decidedly one of my favorite filmmakers working today, is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. It’s just not for a movie I have much love for and I’d argue it’s his most ordinary movie yet, which is a hell of a claim for a Gill-Man romance.

Besides Terry Gilliam, nobody stacks up rejected projects like Del Toro. The man collects them like Pokémon. And while the scrapping of Silent Hills and At the Mountains of Madness certainly hurt more, the hurt for his proposed romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake is still searing right there in my heart, so when the trailer for The Shape of Water came out earlier in 2017, I was pretty much giddier for the project than I’ve ever been for a Guillermo Del Toro film in my life. And then when it was announced at the Venice Film Festival that it won the Golden Lion, I was even more sold than I’ve ever been. “They gave their top prize to the movie where Sally Hawkins fucks the gill-man?!” I exclaimed to my friend in excitement when I found out.

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So, when I walked out of the movie nowhere near as ecstatic as the folks I saw the movie with, it may very well be a part of my expectations not exactly being met (FULL DISCLOSURE: It may also be that I was suffering a numbing amount of after-work migraines in the film and chose unwisely to join them at a 10:10 pm screening), but I hope I can express well enough – against the tide of praise – why The Shape of Water only occurs to me as fine rather than great. I mean, fine should not be the way I feel after I got my romantic Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that I’ve been wanting for so damn long.

Except I only got it after sitting through an hour of Guillermo Del Toro’s Crash. I mean, it’s a significantly better version of Crash as directed and co-written by an actual talent and it’s theses about race and society are not as patronizing as Paul Haggis’. But they’re arguably as shallow and distanced, with little interiority afforded by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay to some characters (ie. Octavia Spencer once again having to do the heavylifting for his character with a pretty much one-sided portrayal of a dead marriage displayed 90% via monologue) and used mostly as just more window-dressing to setting the film in the racially, gender-wise, and diplomatically messy time of America on the verge of the Civil Rights. And while the argument could be made that The Shape of Water is in the end not really about these observations, it doesn’t really assuage me when Del Toro and Taylor devote more screentime to these surface level themes than the “fish-fucking” that people like to praise the movie for. And I know Del Toro is intelligent enough to work with these concepts.

That’s a lot of talking about the script without actually establishing what The Shape of Water‘s story is. The straightforward premise of The Shape of Water is how Elisa Esposito (Hawkins, a Mike Leigh alum who I’m always ecstatic to see in movies), a mute janitor for the US government-contracted Occam Laboratories, witnesses them bringing in a mysterious monster (Doug Jones, Del Toro’s reliable monster man) at the height of the Cold War insisting its danger and the potentials of winning the space race from studying the creature. And how after a time, Esposito and the Asset (as it is referred to in the film and credits) come to fall in love to the point that when the authority on the research of the Asset, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon playing an unchallenging part he can do in his sleep, though that doesn’t detract from how far he excels at it), eventually orders its death for dissection, Elisa and her friends craft up a plan to rescue and release the Asset.

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It’s pretty much fairytale stuff here and Del Toro is more than aware of that in Paul D. Austerberry’s production design of the early 1960s as a drowned-in green caricature of urban and domestic ghosts left over from the likes of American Graffiti which feels like the least creative design of Del Toro’s career since Hellboy, frankly mundane and even within the transparently sinister laboratories and the unglamorous period settings – or in the very calm and paternal delivery of the narration like lulling somebody to sleep by Richard Jenkins’ character, Elisa’s best friend and closeted advertising artist Giles (who is both the best performance in the film and the most shaded of all the characters arguably, given his very own subplot in regards to an infatuation he has and the depression brought about by the state of his career).

And yet The Shape of Water takes its sweet time trying to correct its course on tone between self-conscious social commentary, government thriller, monster movie, or broad romance and Del Toro for the first time can’t perform this function without every scene transition feeling thudded and sudden (including a huge gap in the developing relationship between Elisa and The Asset that feels rushed because of how overstuffed the social commentary makes The Shape of Water), which is why it’s no surprise that when the movie finally dedicates itself fully to thriller once Elisa and her friends decide to take action for The Asset’s survival. It’s much more focused and tighter at that point and even does more to earn the swooning final beat of the whole film than any of the slightness that inhabited the first half of the movie.

That The Shape of Water catches its footing the more it progresses as a narrative is a good portion of why it doesn’t distress me as much that I came away kind of disappointed. There are more than a few inspired elements within the film even before I feel it sticks the landing, like Alexandre Desplat’s tender score inputting delicate passions and vulnerabilities to underscore the characters’ living situations, the way that Giles is an unabashed movie fanatic which can’t help feeling informed by how much of a cinephile Del Toro is (sure, it’s part of what makes the movie overstuffed but it at least feels… real), and of course to say nothing of the wonderful texture and sleekness (slimy but not disgusting) of the monster suit Jones dons as The Asset, living and breathing and moving on its own terms and brought to life even further by post-production effects that surge lights through its body to shape a divinity into the creature and make him fascinating and scene-stealing with big round cutesy eyes to sell it as… well, a fish out of water while Jones moves with apprehensiveness and curiosity at the world around him.

It’s not a total loss, that’s just a fact. But I’d rather had a wholly great film like Del Toro has often given me than a halfway good movie. Still in the end, Del Toro will be ok and will hardly care what I think about the movie that got him two Oscars, the success of which probably ensures less adversity in his developing projects as he had faced all throughout his career. And he’s had more than enough great movies not to lose an ounce of good will from me just on account of The Shape of Water. Most of all, there’s no real context by which I could claim Del Toro was really… uninspired. The man loves making movies and feels like everything he makes comes from a labor of love. Just sometimes that doesn’t result in something every single one of his fans dig and that’s a-ok. We could do worse with our passion projects sometimes*.

*I say as I side-eye Mute.

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Like Rats in a Maze

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So, like… I haven’t been in the target audience of Young Adult fiction for a little under a decade now and when I was part of it, I was already looking for the door, so I might not be entirely in the know about these works. To my memory, the only major series I’ve read were Harry PotterTwilight, and The Hunger Games. But, like, there’s usually some kind of social observation in the heart of it, no? Like hamfisted, absolutely undiluted social observation that you would have to be not paying attention to the unsubtle dialogue to miss. The Hunger Games had classism and the exploitative nature of the media, Harry Potter had a wizard version of the Ku Klux Klan that got more and more time as the main antagonists, Twilight for all that it ranks at the bottom barrel of things I’ve read and watched even has some muddled attempt at determinism (and Mormon looking views on romance).

So, we get The Maze Runner – one of these young adult works that I hadn’t even heard of until we suddenly had a film adaptation come out in 2014 and make enough money to have another aim at being the next Hunger Games-level box office franchise – and I just don’t get what the fuck it’s trying to be about.

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I mean, I get what it’s trying to taking inspiration from – Terrence Malick’s landscape photography in consideration of how the majority of the movie takes place in an entrapped area of forestation (and I don’t mean to insult Malick but comparing him to a movie as terrible-looking as The Maze Runner), Lord of the Flies in how it revolves around a bunch of kids isolated from society trying to create their own community – but it doesn’t seem to have anything to say about any of that. Which is not only shocking, it just kind of makes me feel like I wasted my damn time worse than I already dreaded before spending two hours watching the thing. Like there was nothing to gain and it was philosophically and thematically empty from a genre that proudly wants to proclaim its themes and philosophies, adolescent as they may be, in a very urgent way.

Maybe the original novel by James Dashner, which I frankly have no intention of reading, does a better job of dicing up a message out of it. Maybe more likely is how the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim (yes, the president of NBC News, that same guy. No sarcasm.), Grant Pierce Myers, and T.S. Nowlin is so distracted by the necessity of stacking exposition dump upon exposition dump to slowly seep out some summary of what is happening to actually concern itself with depth and theme. I don’t think that excuses itgiven that Divergent – another flipping Young Adult novel adaptation that’s desperately tried (and hilariously failed) to be the next Hunger Games – was also a movie packed to the brim with world-building exposition dump and you’d still be able to takeaway that story’s appeal to the importance of individualism, even if you had watched it blindfolded or with earmuffs or upside down (not at the same time, though. Be serious.) Still it’s just plausible that such was the case with The Maze Runner.

Those exposition dumps happen to be showing us how a young man we learn later to be named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) is thrown into a large plain of grass called the Glade inhabited by several other boys mostly devoid of personality beyond their pragmatic status and none of these statuses seem remotely interesting except that of a Runner, the boys who are selected to run everyday into the walls that surround their little plain and try to find a way out of the maze within, running back to the community before the doors to the wall close every night and trap them in the maze lest they be attacked by a bunch of giant CGI monsters called Grievers. This is like… the premise of a movie, not a full on plot and yet it takes The Maze Runner more than 2/3 of its runtime to lay that all out. It’s not even world-building because everything they’re explaining and elaborating on is confined to the Glade and the Maze, nothing else.

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And some of these things are of course delivered in some manner that has to do with the element of cutting and framing in cinema, like the sort of impressively trapped and uncomfortable flurry of opening shots where Thomas is practically launched into the Glade in unstoppable motion and quickly shifted from surrounding him from dark walls behind a steel cage into surrounding him from blinding light and laughter and boyish eyes no less confusing before he faceplants from fear. But that’s like it. That’s the only worthwhile moment conceived out of Wes Ball’s direction in the whole movie. The rest of that exposition through cutting is in the case of randomly clunked up flashbacks of Thomas’ time before the Glade, spurred on by Teresa’s (Kaya Scodelario) arrival into the Glade. Kind of glad there’s no “sexual tension” amongst these apparent teens played by guys in their 20s and 30s, but like… there’s practically no reaction to her arrival.

None except from the central antagonist Gally (Will Poulter), who brings the closest thing this movie could ever have to tangible conflict given how much of it is still just developing itself. Like all the other boys, Gally supplies more exposition but this time with a permanent scowl (without much effort, Poulter is best in show given how his face – particularly his eyebrows – compliments angry looks and he has an imposing build) and a tone of “I don’t trust these new folk” towards Thomas and Teresa (even though the implication is that THEY all were slowly sent into the Glade progressively so, like, aren’t they all new folk?).

Anyway, I think the film eventually figures out it’s running out of time and tries to have the reveals expand more in scope in a more accelerated fashion as it reaches its end and tries to actually make good on suggesting the state of a world beyond the maze, but it all felt like ambling and idling until the last three minutes when the literal plot police (I mean, fucking literal!) show up and tell them what’s going on with the franchise beyond before scooping them up and taking them out of the movie.

I mean, I get that maybe the premise of The Maze Runner isn’t my thing. But it’s not my thing because it seems like a concept that, unless under a skilled writer and director, can only be hamstrung be its self-imposed limitations. And I don’t think high enough of Young Adult works to think they usually house skilled writers and directors. And Ball and company have to work sooooo fucking hard to make a movie feel as unrewarding a waiting game as this. So why put myself through this? You assholes saw Maze Runner: The Death Cure enough to have it top the weekend box office and forced my fucking hand and now I’m covering it. I hate you all.

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What a Happy Day It Is

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I’m going to spend almost the entirety of this post gushing over what I consider to be THE cinematic achievement of 2017 (and arguably the last movie I saw that year if you live in a timezone that is not mine), so I think I can be forgiven for identifying the most frequent criticism I hear on animator Don Hertzfeldt’s last-second released* short sequel to glorious and wonderful World of Tomorrow, this one titled World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts. That criticism is essentially “it does not hold up outside of the context of World of Tomorrow, more particularly it does not hold up without watching World of Tomorrow immediately before it.”

Now, identifying that criticism does not mean I agree with it. Certainly, people would enjoy World of Tomorrow better with the knowledge of having seen Episode Two and it’s probably a lot easier to catch all the neat continuations of World of Tomorrow‘s visual anchors with the first short film fresh in your head, but Episode Two is certainly its own standalone story with its own insights on humanity and its own abstractions of those emotions into gorgeous technicolor seas washing together to fill the screen and sharp digital lines of various forms.

That said, Episode Two is soooooooo very much rewarding with the context of its predecessor in many ways. For one, much as Hertzfeldt made clear how tough it was to craft a new narrative from the new audio recordings he took out of his 5-year-old niece Winona Mae, there’s not only a challenging yet coherent narrative out of Episode Two, there’s also an evident growth from the last time we saw Mae’s character Emily Prime, rendered as a stick figure like every other character Hertzfeldt ever animated who isn’t a Simpson. There’s a lot of room for a little maturity and confidence between ages four and five, as Emily will indicate when a new adult clone of Emily (animator Julia Pott again) with a 6 on her forehead and a clangy metallic machine on her back suddenly barges into the child’s peaceful drawing time with a lot more urgency behind her “HELLO EMILY” (or is that just the fact that every line Pott delivers from this heavily damaged being is so loud and heavy? She still retains her mostly emotionally stilted line readings like before, still a huge strength) and Prime responds to her presence with a frank “you have to sit down, okay?”.

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I don’t want to go to far into what follows that introduction of Episode Two on a narrative sense (I will try to keep things thematic instead) because it’s so eventful and full of wonderful surprises, but I will explain how the middle ground into the same arresting colorful backdrops of dynamically undefinable computer generated shapes comes from ours and Prime’s entry into the mind of the clone. And if you thought the universe Hertzfeldt gave us in World of Tomorrow was dysfunctional, at least that one had real-world logic to it so we could recognize a rock when we see it or what part is the ground. Here, Hertzfeldt takes advantage of the opportunity to frequently glitch (both in on-screen and on the soundtrack) and leave remnants of visuals well after it’s communicated that the character or object is not there anymore to establish the fragile and impaired state of the being whose memories and emotions we are exploring.

And those memories and emotions are the product of a feeling of incompletion and dishonesty to one’s identity (indeed Emily Six’s existence as a clone/storage unit to Emily’s experiences is what gives her the titular “Burden of Other People’s Thoughts”), visually represented by backgrounds with gaping angular holes in them either interrupting an otherwise colorful scene with big spots of empty black or cracking a monochrome shot with chaos underneath it all. The uncertainty of our character at one point causes the colors to bleed in an artificial and digital way and it is the moment when it is clear Hertzfeldt has now mastered the usage of computers for his animation style. The force with which he deconstructs already unstable settings with dissolves and superimpositions** and aggressive revolutions of vertical smoke and clouds in dark tones of purple and red (Taylor Barron is credited for those clouds and, man, the movie would not nearly feel as urgent without them) is reminiscent in my mind of “Part 8” in this year’s return of Twin Peaks***, a rivaling attempt to translate intangible interior sensations such as depression and pain and loneliness into pure stimuli for the viewer. It is then no wonder “Part 8” and World of Tomorrow Episode II are the only competitors for the Best. Damned. Thing. I. Watched. in. 2017. The difference, other than moods since Hertzfeldt has never been as dark as David Lynch, is that Twin Peaks‘ anchor is the context of the TV series itself and Episode 2‘s anchor are distinct character presences. We’re here not only to sink into the mindframes the visuals lull us into, but in turn to recognize how that is the way the apparently blank Emily Clone 6 feels before we dig into the why.

Did I not mention this movie is funny? I promise it is, even despite what I just described.

Indeed, the more time we spend within the clone’s mind, the more we realize “oh this piece of scenery is her memory” and the clearer it is what the elements on her person, like the “6” and the bracelet across her wrist are AND what they happen to mean to her, neither of which are very happy answers. I don’t have trouble guessing that the way Hertzfeldt tried to cheat his way around Mae’s mostly unconnected lines is by crafting the true crux of the narrative around Emily Six (indeed, there is a span of time where Pott is the only voice in the film and it’s the most structurally clean moment in the film, though it also contains the broadest humor in the work – which is still hilarious if not very surprising – rather than the joyous randomness of Mae’s presence) and it means that we’re privy to more sadness surrounding the first 2/3 of Episode 2‘s 22 minutes.

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The last third, though, oh my Odin. Let me count the ways in which it accelerates World of Tomorrow Episode 2 into my heart as a wonderful blanket for the soul. First, we witness the full clout Mae gets over Hertzfeldt’s story in two moments (one of which preceeds that last third, mind you) where she ends up giving resolutions we would expect to this dense and dark depth into questions about existence we never want to ask. And in the way that only a five-year-old child could possibly do. Second, by that hand, Hertzfeldt indulges in simple yet bright and playful (and so much cleaner) designs full of cotton-candy-colored energy and life while retaining the still-impeachable logic that the setting would need, acting a foil to all of the fearfulness we saw before (it also is maybe the most rewarding sort of callback to the first World of Tomorrow and I feel like even being vague about how is kind of a spoiler). And third is by a lovely sequence of fluid movement and animation lifted up by The Nutcracker‘s compositions, not only surprising for a stick figure, but particularly for Hertzfeldt who has never in his career given us anything to imply he could make his characters so graceful and flowing as he does within the last few minutes of Episode 2 and probably could not have done so if he hadn’t finally mastered the digital technology with which he now animates.

It’s at once a shining moment of unexpected versatility on Hertzfeldt’s part but a beautiful tear-welling moment of catharsis after an exhausting 22 minute journey. It’s not often that you see an artist who will bravely dive deep into the sort of melancholy and gloom that Hertzfeldt is more than familiar with at this point and still rise effortlessly back up into unabashed optimism and inner peace. It’s possible that he couldn’t do it without the help of the innocence of his niece’s imagination and that is kind of one of the conclusions The Burden of Other People‘s Thoughts lands on: that while it doesn’t do to live in the past, even when it hurts us, there is still a solace in our childhood we ought to embrace and remember. But that is only ONE conclusion of many The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts holds in its treasure trove and here’s hoping more can be pulled out before the next Hertzfeldt comes to surprisingly top this one (I didn’t think World of Tomorrow could be topped and yet here we are). I have only scratched the surface in my first two viewings.

Oh, I watched it twice. Did I mention that? On the same day.

*A last second release that probably cost it a spot on the shortlist for The Academy Award for Best Short Film, Animated and that shit is GOING TO STING for the rest of my life.
**Again, Hertzfeldt’s usual M.O.
***For those who read this asking when I will return to my David Lynch retrospective, STinG is not here at the moment but if you leave a message, I will get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you, bye bye.

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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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