Author Archive: Paul Stanis

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Film Review

Many action movie plots revolve around a McGuffin that everyone’s chasing after. It can be a hard drive (who can forget the NOC List?) or a precious stone. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp gives the old trope an upgrade; everyone’s playing hot potato with Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) shrunken office building, conveniently wheeled like a suitcase. It’s one of many amusing sight gags in this heartfelt superhero romp starring Marvel’s most variably sized heroes.

McGuffin Lab

Between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Scott Lang/Ant-Man’s (Paul Rudd) successful sojourn to the subatomic Quantum Realm gives Hank and newly-Wasp-costumed daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), well, hope that Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother of Hope, may be alive there. But as a rescue mission is prepped, working around Scott’s house arrest in the wake of Civil War, the “ghostly” Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen) has other designs on the Quantum Realm.

Hello Kitty Pez

Now that the shrinking and enlarging premise has been established, the filmmakers constantly play with scale, to delightful effect. This visual inventiveness carries Ant-Man and the Wasp a long way, and past its predecessor (which is solid but at least visually, more on the TV movie end of the MCU scale). Incongruous items are enlarged, vehicles are carried in pants pockets, and a buggy suit gives Scott some height issues (Deadpool 2 also has a bit that mines comedy out of the hero being the size of a toddler). The 3D is also excellent, right at home with the shrinking gimmick and Ava’s phasing abilities.

Ava Starr

All this flashiness is in service of a basic plot: Save Janet. A bunch of subplots and character arcs orbit around it, but that’s the spine of the story. So both Ant-Man movies are about reconstructing family units. Not saving the world, but building and rebuilding relationships. These are unique stakes for a superhero movie, which is not to say there isn’t room for plenty of antics and action. The film does a better job than most of “faction plotting”; a lot of groups with conflicting agendas crash and separate and dovetail well (Scott, Scott’s family, Luis’ (Michael Peña) X-CON security agency, Hope and Hank, Ava, Sonny Burch’s (Walton Goggins) criminals, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and the FBI). Even so, room to breathe is hard to come by. It’s very busy, but with the jokes flying, one doesn’t mind so much. In particular, there’s a killer payoff for a joke about part of a car.

Hope van Dyne Scott Lang

The film has you from the beginning. One of the opening scenes shows Scott and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) on a Marvel meets Michel Gondry DIY adventure, fueled by cardboard and imagination. This is the movie establishing a contract with the audience; we’re in safe hands. Scott and Cassie’s bond is immediately strong, the resourcefully tactile production design is pleasing, and the film will have a lot of fun with Scott’s house arrest. Warm, charming, and deftly entertaining.

Cassie Lang Scott Lang

The cast is a deep bench of talent, so much so that I wonder if Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale shot their parts in one day (two tops). Rudd and Lilly hold the screen as likable leads, Hannah John-Kamen impresses in a tough part that calls for intimidation and desperation, Park is endearing, returning player David Dastmalchian gets unexpected laughs, and Goggins has fun with his slimy black market profiteer. But it’s Michael Peña who’s still the comedic MVP, and just wait for him to be let loose.

Luis

Composer Christophe Beck’s earworm fist-pumping Ant-Man theme is back, both in the movie and in my head. It’s the centerpiece of a retro jazzy caper score, now with new emotional cues, and a blunt-force Wasp theme. Perhaps his standout work in this sequel is the electrifying car chase music, which helps to make that already deliriously amusing sequence sing.

Car Chase

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a frothy and fun confection. Because of the density of incident, watching it is a bit like being enmeshed in cotton candy, but in a good way. The Ant-Man franchise continues to be a good place to visit after a world-shattering Avengers movie, with themes of family and whimsical visual jazz carrying our heroes to victory and the audience out of the movie on a high. Not to mention, this is the first MCU movie where a female superhero gets billing in the title. As Hope says, it’s about damn time. But next time, maybe give Michelle Pfeiffer more to do. A weak 8/10.

 

P.S.: *SPOILERS* The mid-credits scene is effectively shocking (Hope, Janet, and Hank are all snapped out of existence by Thanos), but it’s also undeniably deflating after watching a whole movie about saving Janet. The movie earns the construction of this family, but a three-minute scene doesn’t have time to earn its deconstruction. I guess it’s a case of everyone reacting differently. I think this scene requires specific compartmentalization from the audience, to see the movie they just watched, and this scene, as two separate entities.

P.P.S.: As Scott, Hope, and Hank decide to hide out at X-CON, how in the world did Luis hear about Ava stealing Hank’s lab before they told him?

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Film Review

In your typical Jurassic movie, the first sighting of a brachiosaurus is a moment of pure wonder. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this moment is framed differently. On Isla Nublar, in the ruins of Jurassic World, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) jumps out of a jeep to observe this majestic herbivore, and the whole moment is minor key, both in terms of Michael Giacchino’s score with its sorrowful motifs and the backdrop of an island in natural chaos; we’re then shooed along to the next scene by another character. The uncharitable reading of the scene is that it’s an obligatory reference to past films in the series, presented with a confused tone, trying to invoke a sense of wonder and subverting it at the same time, and rushed through anyways, so what’s the point? You don’t know which thread to hang onto. Fallen Kingdom is a movie that struggles to cohere its ideas together, even as it remains competently entertaining in the moment.

Brachiosaurus

When Isla Nublar’s now-active volcano threatens all dinosaur life on the island, Jurassic World executive turned committed dino preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, doing his best Ryan Reynolds impression) to help get the dinosaurs to a stable ecosystem. But darker plans, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are afoot.

Isla Nublar Eruption

Dinosaurs are great (and the film puts them through the wringer, to an extent that will make some viewers uncomfortable), but we need a connection to human characters to fully engage with these movies. The characters given to us from screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are difficult to invest in, both in this film and previous entry Jurassic World. The biggest problem for the returning players is that it seems like almost everyone’s character has been retconned.

In World, Claire sees the dinosaurs only as “assets”, then learns to respect them as animals. That’s a character arc. In Fallen Kingdom, Claire recalls the first time she ever saw a dinosaur, recalls it as a miracle, and says she “still believes that”. So the writers frame her as retroactively being a dinosaur lover from the beginning. Connolly and Trevorrow, you wrote this character. This isn’t going to fly. Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) personal connection with the velociraptors is key, and mined for emotion, but at the top of the movie, he acts like he couldn’t care less about the dinosaurs (seemingly for the sake of a half-baked tough-guy arc). The late John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) is quoted as saying, “these creatures need our absence”. This is consistent with his characterization in The Lost World, after seeing his theme park/glorified zoo turn disastrous. But according to corporate heir Simon Masrani in World, Hammond’s dying wish was that the park be finally open and thriving. So when Connolly and Trevorrow need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of the theme park in full swing, it’s one thing. And when they need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of dinosaur rights, it’s another.

Claire Dearing

Something I have to give the writers credit for is not forgetting that it’s Claire, not Owen, who is the lead of these movies. But then again, there’s so little character real estate for either of them, it’s almost arbitrary at this point. New supporting characters don’t improve the ensemble much either. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is tech support comic relief, grating more often than amusing. Zia fares better; but the whole scared man and cool, calm, collected woman in the wild double-act felt obvious even earlier this year when it showed up in Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.

Owen Grady Franklin Hall Claire Dearing Zia Rodriguez

When the good guys are such ciphers, once again I gravitate to the scoundrel: Vincent D’Onofrio in World, now Ted Levine’s Ken Wheatley in Fallen Kingdom. Levine is a lot of fun to watch, albeit playing a supremely clichéd mercenary character, and doing a better job twirling his mustache than the other villains of the piece. But the writers have to spoil the fun of his villainy by giving him an obvious President You-Know-Who line. Now I can’t even enjoy him being bad! Character is not this movie’s strong suit.

Owen Grady Tyrannosaurus Rex Claire Dearing

If Fallen Kingdom has a strong suit, it lies in the visuals. I haven’t liked director Juan Antonio Bayona’s other films, but it’s not because they looked bad. World’s gunmetal blue visuals are blown out of the water here, and Bayona adds some flair to some of the money shots. Hands-down the best moment of the movie comes when the dinosaur evacuation is ending. From the dock, a lone brachiosaurus gazes at the retreating boat. The ravaging eruption at her back, smoke billows around her and takes on an orange tinge, suggesting the amber from which the dinosaur was created. Back to amber, dust to dust.

Back to Amber Dust to Dust

The finale at the Lockwood Estate offers a variety of action (in contrast to the uninspiring disaster movie material beforehand). The pleasingly grotesque auction; the stygimoloch rampage (tragically, the name of that dinosaur is never spoken on screen. Throw us a bone!); the most elaborate one-on-one fistfights of the series. Bayona’s flourishes come most into play here, playing up the surreal “haunted house” quality of a raptor on the loose in a domestic setting.

Ankylosaurus Auction

But it’s the missteps that stand out. The T-Rex card is played in the first scene, a sequence in which the stakes aren’t clear. A token animal rights story is more-or-less shelved early on, and I don’t know what central point the movie is trying to make. The “it was all a lie” moment from the trailer doesn’t land with the proper context or motivation. There’s a very dumb twist late in the game; the worst part is that it’s there just to facilitate one inane, facepalm moment. The ending is attention grabbing, but poorly thought-out, an epithet that applies to most of the screenplay.

Indoraptor Lockwood Estate

For all its sins, Jurassic World hangs together more than its sequel. Fallen Kingdom offers some decent visual styling and two likable leads (as a consequence of being smoothed out with a rolling pin), but is also hamstrung by a confused screenplay. While passably entertaining, the film is also no more than the sum of its genetically hybridized parts. After the previous installment slashed a swathe through filmgoers’ wallets the whole (Jurassic) world over, Universal spared no expense here. It was in service of a movie that’s just okay. A weak 5/10.

Incredibles 2 (2018) Film Review

In the fourteen-year span between The Incredibles and its sequel, Pixar has revved up three Cars movies.

While you’re thinking on that, consider how CG animation has improved by leaps and bounds in those fourteen years. Incredibles 2 looks, how shall I put it, incredible. A Pixar action movie is a rare beast, and watching the kinetic quality of the animation is a pleasure. Tending to character first and foremost, writer-director Brad Bird delivers a more than worthy installment in his saga of a super-powered family coming into their own, together.

The Parrs

After the Parr family foils a bank robbery but not without some collateral property damage, Incredibles matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is recruited by a sibling-run corporation to be the face of superhero (or “super”) legalization. Meanwhile, her husband Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) faces the daunting challenge of domestic duties, juggling responsibilities toward three powered kids. And while Elastigirl stretches out and gets positive press, the mysterious “Screenslaver” is reaching out with a much more invasive type of PR.

Spy-Fi Aesthetic

This sequel to The Incredibles feels more like a “traditional” superhero movie, and maybe with all that’s happened since 2004, that was inevitable. This franchise resembles 1960s spy-fi more than anything else (see the production design aesthetic and Michael Giacchino’s jazzy score). Incredibles 2 retains that context, but also deals heavily with the politics of supers and accords being drawn up (familiar territory both from Captain America: Civil War and Holly Hunter’s own role in Batman v Superman). In the first movie, this was there, but more a backdrop for super-sneaking around a supervillain’s lair built into (of course) a volcano.

Dashiell Parr Portal

That’s really a key difference between the two films overall. The first movie starts from a place of sadness and eases gradually out of a greyscale world. The sequel is then free to be more of a colorful romp. As Tony Stark once said, “You’ve been tip-toeing, big man. You need to strut.” So Incredibles 2 runs on a more traditional engine – action scene, emotional drama, politics, comic relief, rinse and repeat. Once the film is done building momentum, its pace is an asset; however, the climax doesn’t match the imagination on offer elsewhere. Also, my audience was doling out applause, but the climax rather rushes through these applause moments. On the whole, the movie gets right to the business of being good without reaching the stratosphere of being great.

Elastigirl Elasticycle

Character-wise, the film is a fantastic showcase for Elastigirl. Putting her center stage brings the character into focus, both the idealist and the cynic. Plus her stretching powers continue to be a great showcase for the animation. Her son Dash (Huckleberry Milner) gets short shrift, but that leaves more room for Violet’s (Sarah Vowell) delightful romantic subplot. The Deavor siblings (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) are a welcome addition to the cast, Odenkirk in his typical huckster mode and Keener taking on a particularly dynamic role.

Violet Parr Romantic Subplot

Funniest subplot in the movie!

The villain this time around is the Screenslaver, and it’s pretty frightening for a family movie, laying down a lengthy manifesto monologue as everyone looking at a screen is hypnotized. A legitimately unsettling one-on-one fight between Elastigirl and an avatar of the Screenslaver puts our heroine on the back foot. The villain also weaponizes a criticism of Brad Bird’s movies. Dozens of thinkpieces have gone looking for Randian themes in Bird’s work, specifically relating to the superior entitlement of “special” people over the mediocre masses. Here, the Screenslaver argues that relying on superheroes makes the rest of humanity weak and complacent. If the Screenslaver saw Tomorrowland, we’d hear some choice words.

Screenslaver

“There’s nothing virtuous about selfishness. Is creativity at all human cost rational?”

The production design by Ralph Eggleston is outstanding, from the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Parr house to the sleek Elasticycle. Giacchino’s score is spicy, but perhaps could have made more triumphant use of the main Incredibles theme. For most of the running time, the film cuts between Elastigirl’s action/political story, and Mr. Incredible’s amusing domestic story, and both engage the audience equally, in different ways. The baby Jack-Jack’s powers take advantage of the wild abandon of animation (and get the iconic Edna Mode into the story), while his mother faces an insidious but intriguing threat. The joke is that it’s been fourteen years since these characters last lit up a cinema screen, but it’s been more like fourteen seconds for them. Incredibles 2 bears that out. Everything is in its proper place in as solid a continuation by Pixar’s cape-free First Family as could have been hoped for. A strong 7/10.

Hotel Artemis (2018) Mini-Review

Hotel Artemis

“No water in L.A., but it’s raining assholes in here.” So says the Nurse (played by a whirlwind of Jodie Foster), head of the Artemis, an exclusive hospital for contract criminals. The film Hotel Artemis follows the Nurse, her earnest orderly (an on-point Dave Bautista), and her colorful clients, on one fateful 2028 night marked by blazing water riots on the streets of Los Angeles.

A members-only hotel for killers governed by a strict set of rules – so far, so (John) Wickensian. But Hotel Artemis carves its own identity (occasionally on a human neck). Writer-director Drew Pearce keeps things contained within the evocatively designed Hotel, making the movie a chamber piece that unfolds like a finely tuned play. In a play you need characters it’s a pleasure to watch bounce off of each other, and the film delivers. Sterling K. Brown is a likable, solid-as-a-rock heist mastermind, offering a humane bedrock among the clients. As an effortlessly magnetic French assassin, Sofia Boutella finds maybe her best role yet (and she has pretty good taste). Best of all is the Nurse, animated by a bravura performance from Foster. She injects world-weary humor into this ideal protagonist, forever shambolically running to fix up the next patient, put out the next fire.

Pearce’s screenplay overflows with punchy neo-noir dialogue, enhancing the feeling of Hotel Artemis as a writerly movie. (Another sort of stagey conceit is that all the characters are referred to by codenames; for instance, Bautista’s hulking health care professional is Everest.) Pearce’s near-future world-building is nicely on the fringes; lived-in technology at the Hotel, breadcrumbs of backstory, and the not-so-subtle setup of an L.A. heading for dystopia.

If there’s a hang-up with the film, it’s that the screenplay is a little too eager to call back to itself and pay off previous moments and lines of dialogue. (This is a weird complaint, like the movie… fits together too well?) Also, there sure are a lot of life-changing things coincidentally happening on this one night. In the end, it’s safe to call these nitpicks.

Hotel Artemis is a rare beast in that it’s one of those movies that simply radiates “cool”, but it’s also got a lot of storytelling meat on the bones as well as humanity. It’s hard to overstate how marvelous Jodie Foster is in the movie, and Drew Pearce’s script is sharp enough to draw blood. In Pearce’s career prior to checking into the Artemis, he’s been paired with marquee writing talent on excellent blockbusters (with Shane Black on Iron Man Three, with Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and now his directorial debut establishes him as a significant talent in his own right. I highly recommend this hotel on Expedia, Yelp, or your booking site of choice.

Deadpool 2 (2018) Mini-Review

Deadpool 2

At one point in Deadpool 2, Ryan Reynolds’ titular fourth-wall-breaking superantihero jokes about the first film’s box office figures relative to The Passion of the Christ. Delightful! After Deadpool gets ripped in half by his favorite comic book character, his lower half’s, shall we say, juvenile development becomes the object of much disgust from the other characters. Also delightful. Deadpool 2’s brand of humor can be a virtue, but the film also desperately wants to move the audience to great depths of feeling, and these conflicting impulses don’t mesh in this case, resulting in an emotionally disorienting experience.

Deadpool’s ability to make meta jokes about movies and particularly the one he stars in is a license for great fun, but it’s a double-edged sword. When one particular cliché is deployed with lengthy, sobering ramifications, you keep waiting for Deadpool of all people to skewer it. But Deadpool plays it almost entirely straight, and he’s led along on an inelegant emotional arc with heart forced in, reverse Temple of Doom-style. Such moments of emotion feel schematic – “this is the scene with earnest character development”, “this is the scene with heart”, etc. The first Deadpool, for all its foibles, has a blessedly straightforward narrative thrust and a much more successfully beating heart. By framing itself as a Valentine’s Day movie, the preceding film uses its central romance as its spine, even as it invents wonderful new profane phrases like “shit-spackled muppet fart.”

Deadpool 2 is also visually unappealing, all chrome and greasy grey. The hiring of director David Leitch was a hopeful sign, because I love Atomic Blonde, but the action is unengaging. The exception is where it involves Zazie Beetz’ Domino. After her luck powers are called out as “not very cinematic”, they prove to be the most cinematic thing in the film. Though to be fair, the X-Force parachuting sequence directly prior is an undeniable highlight. Deadpool’s “hit it”, timed with the perfectly synced warning lights and AC/DC needle drop, gives the feeling of a theme park thrill ride.

Amongst the chaos, my favorite running gag is Deadpool repeatedly accusing Cable (Josh Brolin) of being racist. Of course it’s delightful when Deadpool jokes about MCU superheroes, the DC universe, and Brolin’s other role as Thanos (my audience cheered at that). The James Bond title sequence is good, but a little passé. The mid-credits scenes are hysterical (but where’s my Blade Trinity shout-out as a movie where Ryan Reynolds’ character might be just as horny and quippy as Deadpool?). However, a major development occurs with wide-ranging implications not only for future movies but the one you’ve just watched, and casual viewers who leave at the top of the credits will miss some mighty fine dessert, because that’s what we call having our cake and eating it too.

Deadpool 2’s uneasy balance of slobbering silliness and big swings for deep pathos ends up undercutting them both. I love the idea of these Deadpool movies more than the movies themselves, which don’t stick the “superhero landing” for me. But maybe the greatest Deadpool movie of all is an experiential one that happens all around us. The marketing campaigns are better than the films themselves.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Film Review

How high are the stakes for Solo: A Star Wars Story? There’s a disconnect between the extreme scrutiny paid to the film from a real-world perspective (largely due to the hiring of Ron Howard to finish the movie after the firing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller), and the movie’s own identity. Solo is a movie of modest ambitions, and it meets them. This is a solid straightforward crime movie in the Star Wars galaxy with a great lead performance, and that’s all it needs to be a success. The fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake on screen, so the fate of Star Wars isn’t at stake off screen.

Han Solo

On the industrial planet Corellia, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) is unwittingly following in the footsteps of his future father-in-law; he’s indentured to an alien slave driver, and longs to take his skills as a fast driver off-world to be a great pilot. After being separated from his girlfriend Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke), Han befriends Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and follows the gunslinging cynic Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) into a life of crime.

Qi'Ra Han Solo

The era is ten years before the original Star Wars, a time when the Galactic Empire is a fact of life. Stormtroopers are just dystopian cops. Against this backdrop of oppression, Han is introduced hotwiring a landspeeder, and here Ron Howard takes a cue from his past and paints with an American Graffiti brush, all breakaway teens and hairpin turns. Familiar genre conventions are trotted out because they do the job. Of course there are Mexican standoffs, and a train heist (updated to the high-flying, twisting Conveyex), because this is a space western, get it? Several side characters are wiped out, because that’s what happens when a motley crew gets together in a heist movie and a job goes sideways.

Han Solo Enfys Nest

One stumbling block is that the film is a little top-heavy with action. How exciting can it be for a ship to rock in a vortex filled with abstractions for ten minutes? The action isn’t a particular highlight, but still, Solo is a fun ride. The opening speeder chase is propulsive, and parts of the Conveyex sequence are spectacular (including a stylish little one-on-one fight between Beckett and the masked Enfys Nest).

Tobias Beckett Enfys Nest Conveyex

Everything is held together by the film’s central performance. Ehrenreich is extraordinary, holding the screen with real presence but doing so with subtle actorly choices. He embodies a few of Harrison Ford’s mannerisms, but more importantly, his roguish essence. When we first meet Han, he looks damaged, determined with a face like an open wound, the product of a pained Dickensian upbringing. As the movie goes on, his worldview evolves, from optimism to that familiar front of being above caring.

Another highlight is the droid L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a (what do you know?) droid-rights activist who, like Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, profoundly represents the spirit of rebellion. However, some odd decisions are made with Solo’s female characters. Maybe Thandie Newton was only free from Westworld for a week or two, but her character Val gets L.O.S.T. in the shuffle (Lack of Screen Time). L3-37 is given such as strong logline for her character but then gets sidelined. And Qi’Ra is taken in a weird nourish femme fatale direction that feels undefined.

Qi'Ra

Another major player is Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who’s great and larger-than-life, complete with a closet filled with nothing but capes. At one point, Lando and Han are given a little call-forward to the famous “I love you”/”I know” exchange from The Empire Strikes Back, but this and other fanservice moments feel decidedly underplayed, to the point that some audience members won’t even catch it. This is the right decision; there’s a way to wink and nod without contorting your face and giving yourself whiplash. Rounding out the characters, we all know it’s all about Luleo Primoc (aka “Vat Weirdo”) and Aurodia Ventafoli’s soulful, plaintive duet.

Luleo Primoc Aurodia Ventafoli

“Sing once again with me / Our strange duet”

In the build-up to Solo, it was announced that John Williams would compose a musical theme for Han Solo, something he always wanted to do in the past. But what he’s come up with seems like a copied-and-pasted, slightly faster version of his own Poe Dameron theme, another roguish pilot. The main body of the score is written by John Powell, who uses hints of his own percussion-heavy Bourne scores, as well as an Adiemus-meets-Ennio Morricone cue for Enfys Nest’s Cloud-Riders. But Powell would have done well to incorporate some of the rock instrumentation from the Solo trailers to give the score an extra oomph. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity for the man who, with How to Train Your Dragon, gave us some of the greatest film music of this century by marrying atypical film score instruments with an orchestra. Powell does make great use of existing Star Wars themes, however. The “TIE Fighter Attack” cue, last heard during the Millennium Falcon’s flight under Crait in The Last Jedi, gives the Kessel Run a needed punch-up, and will never stop being a pure injection hit of Star Wars. And, asteroids!

Lando Calrissian The Lodge Therm Scissorpunch

Production designer Neil Lamont adds to the saga’s palette of settings well, a couple of his designs being Han’s cool-as-Hoth landspeeder and the rustic and unusual Lodge set, where the stage is set for Lando’s introduction. Also, cinematographer Bradford Young gives Solo an earthy yet beautiful look. His lighting of the film’s five planets give a shape to the story’s structure all on their own: From the grime of Corellia, to the even-darker War-is-hell mud of Mimban, to the brighter snowscapes of Vandor, to the claustrophobic toxicity of Kessel, to a warmer hope for the future on Savareen.

Han Solo Chewbacca Millennium Falcon

Solo, while not featuring the best action or the best character dynamics, carries itself well as a fun space caper movie, and is given a big lift by its make-or-break central performance from Ehrenreich. It hits its themes of freedom and family hard and often. It’s filled with that Star Wars spirit of rebellion, albeit in different forms. I’d venture to say it’s a better Han Solo movie than Return of the Jedi (though not a better movie overall). When Han first sees the Millennium Falcon, I did almost cry. And that’s got to count for something. 7/10.

 

P.S.: YOU CAN’T MAKE THE SPOILER RUN IN LESS THAN 20 SENTENCES!

More than the other recent Star Wars movies, Solo traffics in a delightfully unending stream of offhand references to other elements of the canon. To name a smattering: Aurra Sing (Beckett killed her…!?), Teräs Käsi, Mimban (from the Legends novel “Splinter of the Mind’s Eye”), Colo claw fish (“There’s always a bigger fish…”), we now know how both Lando and Leia got their Jabba’s Palace disguises (see Forces of Destiny), Bossk, the Pykes. But best of all is Maul.

What a payoff for fans of the wider Star Wars canon. What a tribute to the writers of The Clone Wars and Rebels TV series and Maul’s two comic miniseries, who against all odds created a real character out of the cipher in The Phantom Menace. That’s not to mention Ray Park (from the films) and Sam Witwer (from the TV shows), whose distinct approaches to Maul were melded together into one performance here. And this is exactly where Maul would be, as per TV and comic continuity: orchestrating criminal syndicates, and in opposition to the Pykes, who abandoned his service. That little strain of “Duel of the Fates” comes on, and Maul ignites his lightsaber. There you go, that one moment means that every Star Wars movie still includes a lightsaber.

Brian De Palma: An Appreciation

A bucket of pig’s blood falling on the innocent Prom Queen. A tragic death punctuated by endless streaming fireworks in the sky. A daring, near-silent heist of CIA headquarters. These are all images and setpieces orchestrated by Brian De Palma, a “Film Brat” director of the 1970s (think Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola), and one of the most dazzling technicians in film history. His use of split diopter, split-screen sequences, voyeuristic tracking shots, and montage is nothing short of thrilling when firing on all cylinders.

Brian De Palma 1980

Exhibit A: Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a delightfully over-the-top earworm musical satanic bug-eyed spectacle, and a contemporary rock opera update of the “Phantom of the Opera” story. The film is a Technicolor dream/nightmare impeccably constructed to shock, amuse, and entertain, with catchy tunes sure to invade the viewer’s brain. The movie remixes the glammy shock rock of Alice Cooper, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Caligari-esque German expressionism, exceptional sound design, and pre-KISS black and white stage makeup to dizzying effect. Its tale of sleazy, pastel-colored rock musician backstabbing is delirious fun, and feels like what Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls should have been. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is the wronged rock musician who is horribly burned and dons the Phantom mask, and like everyone else in the movie, gives it his all and then some. All respect to the flickering shade of Lon Chaney, and the dulcet tones of Claude Rains, Emmy Rossum, and Gerard Butler, but Phantom of the Paradise blows straighter adaptations of the Phantom story out of the water, but not before electrocuting them.

Phantom of the Paradise Winslow Leach

Exhibit B: Blow Out (1981), a sober, downbeat, and captivating political thriller that is also filled with De Palma’s signature craftsmanship. John Travolta stars as a sound editor at a B-movie studio (close to De Palma’s heart, I’m sure) who unwittingly witnesses and records the fatal car crash of the leading U.S. presidential candidate. As a wider conspiracy unfolds, De Palma unleashes the full range of his talent. Montages play out the crash as the fateful tape is rewound and played over and over, Travolta and an owl are filmed strikingly in contrast through split diopter, and on the scuzzy streets of Philadelphia, John Lithgow’s terrifying government asset is right at home.

BLOW OUT_27.tif

The two films are definitive masterpieces of pulp, and for much of his career, De Palma indeed churned out some high-grade pulp matter. Sisters (1973) stars Margot Kidder (RIP) as one half of a Siamese killing machine. The Fury (1978) ends with a human explosion so spectacular De Palma gives it to the audience from multiple angles and in slow motion. The masterful Dressed to Kill (1980) features Michael Caine in drag in a scary-as-hell elevator kill and museum chase, an almost exploitative Hitchcockian exercise. Snake Eyes (1998) lets Nicolas Cage off his leash in Atlantic City for a crazy movie-star performance; at first he seems like the sleaziest guy in the room (or stadium) but he ends up the straight man charged with uncovering a conspiracy.

I haven’t loved everything De Palma has done, however. Scarface (1983) finds De Palma at his most languorous and tepid, ambling through an overlong history stretched too thin that laughs in the face of narrative cohesion. Al Pacino’s Tony Montana characterization is that Joe Pesci in Goodfellas thing I hate, where anything and everything sets him off. Yes, the ending is legendary. Maybe fast-forward to that. And better yet, watch Carlito’s Way (1993), which finds Pacino back as a mobster looking to get out of that life. Pacino and De Palma’s reteaming for that movie makes it a soulful companion piece to the lazy excess of Scarface, and this time around Pacino is given some meat to chew on and turns in a thoughtful, complete performance.

Carlito Brigante's Way

As time went on, De Palma mounted muscular adaptations of existing properties The Untouchables (1987) and Mission: Impossible (1996). With the former, De Palma gave us a sprawling cops-and-robbers epic, an unforgettable showdown in a train station, and a rare tolerable David Mamet movie. With the latter, De Palma gave us a twisty tale of espionage that set the stage for one of our greatest action franchises. Mission to Mars (2000) is average, rote science fiction that takes a big Close Encounters of the Third Kind/The Abyss turn for the finale, which still proves magical.

The women in Brian De Palma films are too often just victims, particularly in Dressed to Kill and Blow Out (there the female lead is played by his then-wife, Nancy Allen). Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface is especially tokenistic. On the more positive side, there’s a sweet give-and-take flirtation between Pacino and Penelope Ann Miller in Carlito’s Way, and Jessica Harper’s Phoenix in Phantom of the Paradise is formidable. But one film stands out as acutely representing female experience.

Carrie White

Carrie (1976) feels extremely rich thematically as a definitive horror take on female puberty, and features painfully real performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. It builds the most exquisite tension, culminating in the show-stopping prom sequence, with the bucket of pig’s blood leading to a jaw-dropping climax of bloody revenge. Carrie feels perfect, and it holds the title for my favorite horror movie. The recent remake nailed the casting (Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer) but otherwise just goes through the motions.

Brian De Palma 2018

Brian De Palma’s most recent effort, Passion (2012), only has one sequence that (sort of) catches fire, and doesn’t live up to the premise of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace in an erotic thriller. I put De Palma’s upcoming crime movie Domino (2018) in my list of most anticipated movies of this year because he is simply one of the greats. De Palma has to his credit been very open about the struggle of older filmmakers to recapture the creativity of their youths, but hopefully Domino is some type of return to form. He’s got an interesting core cast at least (Guy Pearce, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Carice van Houten from Game of Thrones). But even if it ends up worse than The Snowman, Brian De Palma has left an untouchable legacy, and his films will continue to inspire and shock forever.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Film Review

We are creating the language necessary to react to Avengers: Infinity War. This is a film without precedent, ironically because it pays off eighteen preceding superhero stories. In the ten years between 2008’s Iron Man and 2018’s Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded by leaps and bounds, but now enters the Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), whose goal is to contract it. Thanos seeks the six Infinity Stones, which together give him the power to instantaneously blink half the life in the universe out of existence, eliminating scarcity in one genocidal swoop. Opposing him: just about every superhero in the MCU. So this is a crowded movie where the villain’s plan is literally to de-clutter it.

Thanos

Like a season finale on TV, Infinity War requires a certain buy-in. In that light, the controlled chaos of the movie becomes impressive. It’s not the most perfectly balanced ensemble, but the fact that it’s elegant as it is counts as some minor miracle. (Some serious screenwriting heavy lifting from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.) While certain favorite characters (Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa) don’t get a whole lot to do, the writers know it’s their time to be a paragon, and that’s fine. Why not just soak in the applause when these characters merely show up and act? In top-heavy blockbusters, small details matter more, not less, and so it goes for screen time-challenged characters. Observe Steve running ahead of the vanguard of Wakandan warriors to the place of a true selfless soldier, and T’Challa’s warm greeting of M’Baku (Winston Duke), which carries the weight of a whole other movie behind it.

M'Baku T'Challa Bucky Barnes Steve Rogers

There is one fascinating detail about this ensemble. With the exception of the new children of Thanos (of which only the delightful Ebony Maw is given a personality) and Peter Dinklage’s character, every last speaking role is filled by a character returning from a previous movie. So the solution for accommodating a luxury liner’s worth of cast is to skip the usual authority figures, incidental professionals, and bit parts that populate any other movie. This is a payoff for MCU viewers in itself; for virtually the whole film, you will only be listening to people you already know.

Peter Quill Tony Stark

So, much of the joy of Infinity War is in seeing new combinations of characters bouncing off each other, and some of the interactions are perfect. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) bickering with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is leavened by Peters Parker (Tom Holland) and Quill (Chris Pratt) talking movies. One of the best scenes of this movie is a quiet one between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn), where Thor tries to put a brave face on his pain.

Thor Emotional Wringer

As rewarding as such moments are, there is no central figure among the heroes; screen time is democratized. The most time goes instead to Thanos. The tragedy and menace of the character are anchored by an exceptional motion capture performance by Brolin, making the six-year build-up to this villain worth the wait. It also helps to no end that existing characters we care about like Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) already have a personal stake with him, so when all involved are put through the emotional wringer, it all clicks into place. In particular, there’s one pivotal scene of high drama involving the Soul Stone, a big swing that all but crumbles the movie if it misses. *Click* It’s pure storytelling, giving all the quips and extended action beats around it a foundation to stand on.

Gamora

Last time the directing Russo brothers and writers Markus and McFeely collaborated in the MCU, they were in Captain America mode, in a world of espionage and statecraft. Now, the canvas is the universe, and that scope is taken advantage of. A fight with Thanos on the planet Titan is pure comic book gold. The finale in Wakanda balances brutality with applause moments. The tone turns on a dime from comic to heavy; it feels efficient rather than strained. And with so many beloved characters colliding in the film, there are countless wonderful moments and grace notes. Dave Bautista the funniest he has ever been as Drax; three big heroic moments from Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff; Shuri (Letitia Wright) upstaging Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo); Ebony Maw’s (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) dismissiveness toward Stark and Strange, and so on it goes.

Wanda Maximoff

Juggling this many story threads takes a village. One member of that village is composer Alan Silvestri, whose score is at its best when focusing on Thanos’ pathos. As Thanos receives the Space Stone, a violin reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings One Ring theme elevates the moment. Just as the Soul Stone sacrifice is the centerpiece of the film, it’s also the centerpiece of the score, all bombastic pain and purpose. Early in the filmmaking process, the idea of using the whole range of character leitmotifs was vetoed, and I wonder if something was lost there. How cool would it have been to hear Brian Tyler’s Iron Man theme when Tony first activates the suit, Michael Giacchino’s Doctor Strange theme during particularly mystical action beats, or Silvestri’s own Captain America theme when Steve emerges from the shadows of a Scottish train station? At least part of Ludwig Göransson’s Black Panther theme is used to score the first glimpse of Wakanda, and of course, Silvestri’s own Avengers theme gets a few airings, eight notes that even casual fans can get stuck in their head.

Steve Rogers

Avengers: Infinity War is a roller coaster, funny as hell when clashing familiar personalities, but also showing a constant willingness to put them through the emotional wringer. Just as Thanos runs the gauntlet, reactions to this movie from casual viewers will run the gamut. Maybe the biggest stumbling block here is coming to terms with the new type of movie this is. While given a structure of its own, Infinity War is all third act, all a climax for the MCU at large. This film can’t stand up terribly well on its own, but in no way should it. For defying the odds and delivering thrills, chills, and coherence, the third Avengers movie is a unique accomplishment. 9/10.

 

P.S.: SPOILERS FOLLOW. No pretty end title design for this film, no curtain calls for the cast. Just plain and dignified white text and the Avengers: Infinity War title crumbling to dust. This is a Serious Film™. At movie’s end, Thanos has succeeded in wiping out half the life in the universe, including many of the Avengers; the heroes have utterly lost. (Unlike Rogue One, where everyone dies but the heroes still “win”.) Steve Rogers is reduced to a defeated “Oh god…”, delivered beautifully by Chris Evans. Ironically, maybe everyone should be more worried about those who are left behind than those who are dust.

Peter Parker School Bus

Fun fact: Peter’s dying pleas were improvised by Tom Holland.

P.P.S.: Peter Quill must kill Gamora. Thanos must kill Gamora. Wanda must kill Vision. The way things are going, must Pepper Potts kill Tony?

Tony Stark Emotional Wringer

One of the signature images of this movie.

P.P.P.S.: I’m making my way through the “Infinity Gauntlet” comic miniseries by Jim Starlin, and can confirm that at least one line of dialogue made it in. “My humble personage bows before your grandeur” was Mephisto in the comic, Ebony Maw in the film. Speaking of Ebony: When characterizing Thanos, the writers drew inspiration from Darth Vader, another iconic, tragic villain. Thanos’ line “You killed the Maw… This day extracts a heavy toll” works as an inversion of Vader’s line “This will be a day long remembered… It has seen the end of Kenobi, and will soon see the end of the Rebellion.” Thanos also positions himself as a viewer of the MCU himself, who takes decisive action to curb its growth. He knows of Tony and describes himself as being also “burdened with knowledge”, and upon killing Loki, declares, “No resurrections this time”, as if he saw Thor: The Dark World. This isn’t even a new idea; observe the mid-credits scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Thanos sees Ultron’s failure to destroy the Avengers and says, “Fine – I’ll do it myself”.

Ebony Maw

“Your powers are insignificant next to mine.”

P.P.P.P.S.: After Wong gracefully ducked out of the action, did he order a metaphysical ham-on-rye?

The Death of Stalin (2018) Mini-Review

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is an inspired farce of political backstabbing, the manipulation of language, and Steve Buscemi’s failed attempts to hug Andrea Riseborough. Set while a (laugh-out-loud) power vacuum left by dictator Joseph Stalin’s death rocks the highest levels of Russia’s government, the film depicts a Central Committee who can’t agree on which of Stalin’s policies to reform, can barely decide who’s in charge, and upon finding their leader barely alive, not even whether to call a doctor.

The Russian politburo is a viper’s nest, a literal murderer’s row played by a figurative murderer’s row of talent (Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs…). The standouts of the cast are Simon Russell Beale as chief of the Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria (if anyone’s the villain in this roomful of monsters, it’s him) and Riseborough as Stalin’s grieving daughter Svetlana. Little parts are filled by recognizable British character actors, and in fact the cast is mostly British, using their own native accents rather than “playing Russian”. This decision helps the performances, while also making the events of the film oddly universal.

In case it’s not clear, The Death of Stalin is an extremely funny movie and a very successful comedy. But just by nature of its subject matter it is thematically fascinating too. Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev pointedly remarks that Beria is “bending and breaking the truth like it’s a human body”. There’s a comic runner that goes from the idea of photographing the new Secretary with a girl who was pictured with Stalin for a sense of continuity; to maybe using a fake one because they can’t find the real one; to finding the real one but deciding on a whim to go with the fake one anyways; and the beat goes on. It’s a microcosm of how these people grasp for integrity or authenticity but upon finding it, they edit it and twist it within an inch of its life. It’s easy to reduce this to the fake news thing, but this is so much more interesting.

There’s such an air of paranoia in the air that the wrong word to the wrong person, the wrong inflection, can get you arrested or shot. It makes the characters great verbal gymnasts, sometimes in a split second, which becomes endlessly entertaining to watch. The satirical tone is remarkably true to reality as well, with many of these weird incidents having actually happened. It’s a well-researched carnival show.

Armando Iannucci (director of the excellent In the Loop) shoots in a documentary style with disorienting elements, such as breaking the normal cinematographic rule of shooting conversations from one side. There’s one scene in particular where Jeffrey Tambor seems right on the edge of breaking character and laughing at the absurdity of it all. It’s easy to understand why; Iannucci and three co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows) have crafted a hilarious screenplay, littered with funny barbs. Given the balance of comedy and darkness, the tone is an extended tightrope walk that lands as a rousing success.

The Death of Stalin, one of my favorite movies based on a true story, is also adapted from a French comic book, making it, incredibly, the best comic book movie of the year. As opposed to other reviews I’ve written, for great movies everyone knows, or bad movies a lot of people avoid, this is review as promotion. If fast-talking dark political satire is a mode you enjoy, watch a diamond example of the craft.

 

P.S.: As aforementioned, Simon Russell Beale is excellent as Beria, the nominal villain of the movie. That means my entire Supporting Actor field so far this year is villains – see also Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and Hugh Grant in Paddington 2. Good job being bad.

A Wrinkle in Time (2018) Mini-Review

A Wrinkle in Time

Early in A Wrinkle in Time, two teacher characters are having a conversation with the most awfully stilted “as you well know” expositional dialogue, and the child who overhears them righteously yells, “Shame on you for talking that way!”

Quite so.

But really, the two teachers are setting up the two core conflicts of the film (while throwing shade on our heroes). Young Meg’s (Storm Reid) scientist father (Chris Pine) has mysteriously disappeared for four years after postulating interstellar travel via pure thought; and Meg has a lack of self-confidence that over the course of the movie will have cosmic consequences. Being as it’s calibrated for kids, the message of loving and accepting yourself just as you are is hit home constantly with a velvet mallet. The film is a monument to earnestness. There’s value in that, but as they say, your mileage may vary. I mainly object to the songs (not good enough for this not to matter), force-fed into the body of the film to inject emotion.

And I swear, director Ava DuVernay shoots this movie like Aronofsky’s mother!, full of intentionally disorienting extreme close-ups and subjective use of space. The focus is on creating empathy for the young protagonists, and thankfully the close watch of the camera finds able actors. One of them being Levi Miller as Calvin, a casual acquaintance of Meg who, to the surprise of even himself, shows up to get swept up in the adventure purely because of what we might call “fate” or “the script”. Is there something to the idea that this type of matter-of-fact fairy tale logic, so beloved in, say, The Princess Bride, finds a more skeptical eye from modern audiences?

Part of that dissonance might be because A Wrinkle in Time exists in the space between fantasy and science fiction, between flights of magic fancy and the application of complex equations. It’s The NeverEnding Story (Villain duties go to the It, like The Nothing) meets Interstellar. Even that latter movie and A Wrinkle in Time agree that love opens fifth-dimensional portals.

Even though the film doesn’t strictly speaking work overall (and in kind of an intangible way that’s unexciting to work through), calling something uneven implies it’s got good parts – and that certainly applies here. The standout sequence revolves around a suburban nightmare of conformity. The visuals are often appealing, with nice show-off-y costume changes for the cosmic beings. The fate of Michael Peña’s character is a really cool moment. There’s a magical flight that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place in the World of Avatar at Disney World. I often say that flight sequences bring out the best in composers, and while Ramin Djawadi’s music isn’t a patch on his own dragonriding music from Game of Thrones, it still does the trick.

Whether the movie as a whole does the trick for you depends. For me, this moralizing, space wrinkling, Hamilton referencing blockbuster is a mixed bag that fits in a tradition of heart-on-its-sleeve children-oriented fantasy without necessarily bettering it. In the future, let’s hope for better movies aimed at this demographic.