Category Archives: Action

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Mini-Review

For about five minutes at the beginning of Luc Besson’s latest gonzo science fiction romp, we are shown the building of a utopia. A montage of diplomacy, this opening shows how earthbound nations begin to cooperate in the arena of space, and then without skipping a beat, how humanity goes on to welcome various alien races as friends. The International Space Station gradually becomes bigger and bigger as more and more cultures add to its diversity; the core of the City of a Thousand Planets is already in Earth orbit. It’s a sequence of humanism to rival anything in the Star Trek archive (recalling as it does the show Enterprise’s title sequence chronicling the progression of space travel). And while Valerian goes on to dazzle with visual wonders, the opening title sequence is so much the standout that you can be forgiven for walking out right then and there.

Alpha

Diversity as pure addition – it doesn’t have to mean subtraction for anyone.

The case for the rest of the film is weakened quite a bit by the vapid lead characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne play agents Valerian and Laureline, titular heroes of a vintage French comic strip now adapted into this $175 million-plus-budgeted blockbuster. Their corny sub-pulp fiction banter and flirtation feels like the throwback it was intended to be, but rests entirely on a chemistry that isn’t there, and absent emotions. Co-star Rihanna may not be a professional actor, but she still shows more humanity in 10 seconds than either lead does throughout the entire movie. DeHaan is much more at home navigating sinister sanatoriums and playing the antihero than he is as a Buck Rogers-esque action hero, and Delevigne continues her quest to convincingly show an emotion on screen. At least Jane Fonda as Barbarella, who shows that there’s precedent for bizarre 1960s French pulp heroes to translate to film, had screen presence and was more in on the cosmic joke.

Laureline Valerian

Our sickly leads. Maybe Dane DeHaan never left the Volmer Institute from A Cure for Wellness?

Trailers for Valerian billed it as based on the “legendary graphic novel”, but it’s more accurately a comic strip. And to match that, the film has a very episodic structure, all the better to slideshow its various spaced-out visual ideas and high-concept action scenes (interdimensional shopping!), all falling out of a very big and French piñata. This is the raison d’être of the movie, and the splendor of the world(s) is undeniable. It’s just a shame that a film so production designed to death didn’t invest the time to create characters worth caring about, and while there are interesting thematic elements to the plot (disrespect to one sentient race – incidentally with a coded transgender Emperor – becomes a nameless darkness that threatens the entire utopia), a story tying it all with a bow. There have been other significantly flawed but visually stunning movies this year, such as Kong: Skull Island and Ghost in the Shell. Let’s hope that future efforts balance the equation.

Draag Pearl

French visions of the alien

P.S.: Other aesthetic notes: As you can see above, long stretches of the film resemble nothing so much as a live-action take on René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet. Besson’s own Fifth Element gets a couple nods here in the form of a restaurant name and an equivalent sequence to the legendary “diva dance”. And in an ADR fail, I’m almost certain that for one important line, Laureline speaks while her mouth stays completely still.

P.P.S.: This is a semi-new category of review for the site, alongside the larger-scale film reviews with pretty pictures, editorials, franchise flashback, TV talk, and end-of-year review stuff. Mini-reviews are designed to take less time out of my schedule and hopefully a lot more are coming soon. As I see more and more movies every year (at time of writing, I’ve seen 55 2017 releases), my review productivity has gotten worse and worse. Mini-reviews are a new way to get more movie thoughts up on the site efficiently, but at the same time not just for new releases. And I know it’s a bit odd that this is the movie with which I’m coming back; there’ve been some heavy hitters I’ve missed reviewing. Perhaps pieces on some recent big names will turn up eventually; right now I’m at work on a big full-scale Fate of the Furious review. Happy viewing!

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The Great Wall (2017) Film Review

Perhaps as soon as two years from now, China will surpass the United States as the biggest, most lucrative film market in the world. This is happening. And as it does, movies produced in the spirit of something like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall will become more common. So what appears to be an easily dismissed monster flick actually stands on the vanguard of a new globalist film industry. It’s entering uncharted territory, being the first Hollywood-sourced film produced in China. Put in other terms, this is a truly collaborative production – Universal provides most of the funding, the marquee movie star Matt Damon, a couple other supporting cast members, and part of the crew; China provides the director, most of the cast, the filming locations, and the rest of the crew. And at a cool $150 million, The Great Wall is also the most expensive movie ever made in China. So given the overwhelming context swirling around, what does this landmark international cooperation have to offer?

capital

In the 11th Century, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find their way to northern China in search of the “black powder” (gunpowder), with the intent to take the substance west and sell to the highest bidder. But they are caught up in a mythical war between China’s watchers on the Great Wall called the Nameless Order, and the monsters they repel, the gargoyle-esque Tao Tei. With Commander Lin Mei (Jing Tian) forbidding the vagabonds from journeying back to the west, William and Pero must decide between following their desire for riches or taking up a new cause.

lin-mei

Unsurprisingly, the backbone of the drama comes not only from the sickly green hell-beasts barreling down on the Wall, but also from the culture clash between the Nameless Order and the western outsiders. Excepting a couple throwaway characters confined to the first ten minutes, there are only three non-Chinese characters, so few that they become avatars. They clearly stand out; as the Order moves like a single organism, western characters long for the black powder (reminiscent of the euphemistic “red flower” from The Jungle Book), and must be humbled by the selfless unity of the Order. There’s no balance to this portrayal. One westerner inevitably screws the other over for personal gain. When that character is blown up by the very gunpowder he intended to hawk, it doesn’t feel so much like a person has died, but rather a stand-in for capitalism.

a-capitalist

A capitalist.

Unlike every other western character in the film, our hero William quickly comes around to the cause of slaughtering monsters. Contrary to appearances, Matt Damon’s character is not so much the white savior of China as he is the white convert to Chinese communism. And why wouldn’t he be? The thousands-strong Order’s competence and unflinching loyalty is contrasted with two lone outsiders’ doomed quest for profit. When the (significantly labeled) Nameless Order speaks Mandarin, the subtitles are presented in the most straightforward font possible: a prosaic font for a prosaic people. This solidity gets results. At every turn, communism is implicitly championed over capitalism. Strictly within the context of the story it makes sense, but as the blunt theme of this co-production it feels cowardly. I’m not railing against The Great Wall’s politics as some kind of America-fuck-yeah statement. The problem is that these politics feel so corporately mandated. Back in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, putting communist themes in a Hollywood movie was transgressive, subversive, and risky. Now, it’s just pandering.

william-garin

The character work is functional if colorless. The film stars Matt Damon and his variable accent, toggling between his normal voice, a southern drawl, and a posh take on Irish. Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is fun in his role as a wandering and weary scoundrel, and his double act with Damon makes for stilted but amiable banter. According to director Zhang, he insisted at the script level that the clichéd romance between William and Commander Lin be removed, and that’s to his credit. But in the finished product, all the setup for that romance makes it to the screen! The seams are visible, so the matter-of-fact statement of mutual respect is diluted a bit.

nameless-order

The new season of Power Rangers took a new direction.

The production design is striking. As is Zhang’s signature, strong color contrasts are used in the costumes, with each Corps within the Nameless Order corresponding to a clearly defined color: red for archers, black for infantry, sky blue for spears, etc. The large-scale production utilizes visual effects well, if not outstandingly, even though the opening sequence looks like a PlayStation 3 cutscene. The Tao Tei beasts are always given heft and weight when interacting directly with human characters. The visuals are mostly aiming for a specific kind of unreality, and on balance they’re the best aspect of The Great Wall.

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But the opening gambit of the film doesn’t take encouraging first steps. The awkwardly edited prologue, filled with mile-wide close-ups, contains a moment of night-shrouded action in which several characters are meant to be killed. But the editing is so confusing I could only surmise they had died by their absence in the next scene. It feels like every once in a while Zhang aims for horror, and in this opening at least, he misses wide of the mark. The action throughout is engaging enough but never really catches fire. It’s consistently competent, miles away from the dazzling action on display in Zhang’s previous work like House of Flying Daggers. Rounding out the production, composer Ramin Djawadi uses thrumming martial tones familiar from his Warcraft score, ethnic motifs, and even a couple cues reminiscent of his Game of Thrones work in a middle-of-the-road effort.

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The Great Wall is weird and sort of uncomfortably timely. This is a movie that glorifies the border patrol of a massive wall, that panders to the Chinese, and in which a Spaniard is portrayed as greedy and selfish. Not such great stuff there. But the action is competently staged, and the visuals are sometimes big-screen bonkers. Even though the themes are problematic, and there are myriad things, let’s say, off about this one, the film comes out more or less okay. So, this review is not advocacy for an underrated gem (Monster Trucks), or praise for a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders (John Wick Chapter 2). It’s an acknowledgement that aside from all the baggage, The Great Wall is an adequate but flawed medieval fantasy war movie where people blow up a bunch of grotesque monsters real good. 5/10.

 

P.S.: Edward Zwick was the original director attached, and retains a story credit. His Tom Cruise/Ken Watanabe-starrer The Last Samurai has superficial parallels with this film, but The Great Wall has not an ounce of the empathy and grounded grandeur of that superior movie.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Film Review

Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, is in many ways not a standalone at all. It is a direct prequel to the original movie from 1977, and features scores of deep-cut references, allusions and easter eggs that only hardcore fans will appreciate. So Rogue One is big-budget fanservice. But crucially, it’s more than that. It’s fanservice that also happens to have great original characters and takes a lot of risks. The trick of Rogue One is that it’s a love letter to Star Wars (and works as such; the ending made me cry), but it also fundamentally changes its texture.

death-star

The Empire rules the galaxy with an iron fist, and seeks to solidify its reign by constructing a planet-killing superweapon. To complete work on the Death Star, Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) coerces the scientific genius Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), father of Jyn (Felicity Jones), into service. When Galen sends a secret message to the reeling Rebellion tipping them off to a structural weakness in the Death Star, a scrappy guerilla team must steal the Death Star plans. The team: Jyn; lethal Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna); sarcastic tactician droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk); desperate Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed); blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen); and his cynical companion Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). But in this war, can any hope survive in the grime of Imperial domination?

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In the lead-up to the movie, the talking points were obvious. “Puts the Wars in Star Wars.” “The gritty side of the universe”, blah blah blah. It’s one thing to hear the sound bites, but to see this saga taken out of the good vs. evil fairy tale realm so elegantly is something else entirely. That tale is great, it has its place, but Rogue One complicates it. There’s ethical compromise in the Rebellion, represented by Cassian. There’s a pecking order in the Empire, an elitist element that Krennic must constantly prove himself to. There are extremists on both sides. Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker)’s methods are disavowed by the Rebel establishment, while his opposite number, Darth Vader, plays enforcer for an unstable galaxy. Star Wars has always worked best as an underdog story (witness how The Force Awakens recreates the Empire vs. Rebellion conflict by another name), but the main characters here are underdogs even within the Rebellion. And Krennic, the villain they face, is an underdog even within the Empire.

orson-krennic

Krennic stands amidst his achievement.

None of this thematic stuff would click if the character work wasn’t there, and thankfully it is. All the characters resonate, but standouts include comic relief monstrosity K-2SO (think C-3PO with a two-by-four in place of an etiquette program), and apathetic loner to inspirational leader Jyn Erso. But my favorite character is Cassian Andor, who embodies what makes Rogue One work so well. The co-leading hero in the film, Cassian is exciting because he’s tainted. Pretty much the first thing you see him do is shoot an unarmed ally in the back because he would be a liability! (And you thought Han shot first?) He personifies the risks that the film is willing to take, introducing a Rebel officer as a morally compromised hero. The main characters are allowed to be impure or damaged, and Krennic, while ruthless, has to deal with bureaucratic and browbeating BS from superiors more evil than he. The idea is that the Rebellion’s purest heroes and the Empire’s purest villains are more background players, and we get to spend time with relatively complex characters.

cassian-andor

Cassian shot first.

Rogue One manages to stuff a lot of character into what is perhaps too compressed an amount of time. This does have downsides. Jyn’s character arc is good, but feels like it has a middle and an end while missing part of the beginning – we’re told Jyn’s rap sheet but we don’t see her struggles fending for herself brought to life. The first act has a lot of quick planet-hopping setup and so probably works better on a rewatch. Conversely, while the action in the third act is alternately breathtaking, tense, and emotionally powerful, it still feels like a little paring down might have made it pop even more.

jyn-erso

But flaws aside, the storytelling always has something up its sleeve. This is a surprisingly emotional movie, largely owing to how the light contrasts all the more against the desperate circumstances. Chirrut’s reverence of the Force becomes poignant precisely because the Jedi have passed into myth. Put Obi-Wan Kenobi on the team and the everyman quality to the group crumbles. In a stroke of genius, the first test of the Death Star’s awesome destructive power is made intimate and personal. The pacing and atmosphere is far removed from the propulsive, almost manic The Force Awakens (which is great in that context). It’s Star Wars sung in a different key in a different time signature, and I ate it up.

chirrut-imwe

Technically speaking, Rogue One has much to commend it. I love how the CGI Star Destroyers as near as damn them look exactly like physical models. The cinematography, and vaguely documentarian aesthetic courtesy of director Gareth Edwards make the action and emotion hit home. And considering composer Michael Giacchino only had a couple months to score the film after replacing Alexandre Desplat, his score contains some solid motifs.

cgi-star-destroyer-model

Rogue One commits to its war movie aesthetic brilliantly. The acting ensemble is outstanding; even tertiary characters like the leery General Draven feel rich. This is a smart, weird, exciting, occasionally sloppy, and surprisingly emotional blockbuster, which enriches Star Wars in a two-hour salvo. It will be remembered for playing with what the franchise can do, while also blowing stuff up real good. 9/10. — If you’re a fan of the saga, there’s a good chance you’ll get emotional at the last scene. But after certain recent events… it might wreck you.

 

P.S.: *SPOILER-FILLED STRAY NERDY OBSERVATIONS*

So this is a mainstream blockbuster where every main character dies. With a sweeping gesture out of Shakespearean tragedy, the board is cleared and only characters on the fringes live to carry on. Disney will sugarcoat anything.

scarif

The beach, before it’s strewn with bodies.

Darth Vader. Giving him an imposing evil tower immediately casts him in the same company as Sauron (with lava planet Mustafar standing in for Mordor). It codifies his status as an iconic villain. But it’s worth noting that a castle for Vader isn’t a new idea; it was proposed in concept art for the original trilogy and was even considered for inclusion in The Force Awakens. Vader’s first scene with Krennic perhaps isn’t everything it could have been. It ends with what I call “stand-up comedy Vader”, but even though it feels a bit weird in the moment, it’s not too far off from his “Apology accepted, Captain Needa” brand of humor. Vader’s other scene is just terrific. Add the hint of his vulnerability and his weird Riff Raff-esque butler, and Rogue One does some interesting things with this Dark Lord of the Sith.

darth-vader

When the Empire puts up the shield in orbit of Scarif, an X-Wing can’t pull up and crashes into it. Which is exactly what should have happened in Return of the Jedi when the Rebel fighters are flying to the second Death Star thinking the shield is down.

Star Wars isn’t known for romance. It has a few, but they’re either dreadfully stilted community theater (Anakin and Padmé) or a whirlwind flirtation carried by bickering and banter (Han and Leia). So am I alone in thinking that Rogue One contains the hottest moment in all of Star Wars? When Jyn and Cassian are in close quarters in the elevator, and it’s filmed like they might kiss, and they don’t?

If Rogue One came out when I was in junior high, it would have been the biggest deal in the world that Garven Dreis and Dr. Evazan are in the movie. Now, it’s just really cool. But in junior high, I wouldn’t have caught the significance of Chirrut and Baze being Guardians of the Whills, which is a reference to George Lucas’ original title for his Star Wars screenplay: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga 1.

Doctor Strange (2016) Film Review

The Marvel Studios brand is even more powerful than any of the superheroes in its stable. The mere association of the studio with an untested property is enough to spin offbeat ideas into gold, and their risks are getting gradually more exciting. So ever since kicking the doors down with 2012’s crowd-pleasing The Avengers, Marvel has premiered a surefire box office smash in the front half of a year, followed by something weirder in the back. In 2013, the billion-grossing satirical action comedy Iron Man 3 was followed by the cosmic portal-hopping fantasy of Thor: The Dark World. 2014’s espionage thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier was succeeded by the acerbic space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2015, the thematically rich and aurally deafening team-up Avengers: Age of Ultron was complemented by the small-time heist comedy Ant-Man. And this year, the superhero masterpiece Captain America: Civil War gives way to the infinite magical dimensions of Doctor Strange. Marvel has effortlessly produced another entertaining, well written, light on its feet origin story with a compelling actor holding it all together, plus the added twists of stunning trippy visuals and an exhaustive magical mystery tour through obscure mystical realms.

stephen-strange-trip

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-class neurosurgeon with an equally world-class ego. But when his negligence behind the wheel leads to a crash, the hands that had been so vital to his career and identity can never operate again. After exhausting his fortune on moon-shot surgeries, a desperate Strange travels to the Nepalese sanctuary Kamar-Taj to find a more mystical cure. There, he studies under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her fundamentalist lieutenant Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), even as the wayward sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the fabric of reality. Strange will need help, including from former colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to wrestle with this new world of magic and monsters and nothing he was ever trained for.

doctor-stephen-strange

On paper, Doctor Strange comes armed with the best cast in a non-team-up Marvel movie. That comes in handy, because seeing as this is the MCU’s full-blown introduction to interdimensional magic, boy howdy there is a lot of magixposition to get through. But the cast elevates the material, and make up for some of the imperfections of the screenplay. I do find the film very sharply written on a scene-to-scene basis, but connecting the dots is sometimes a stumbling block, as there is a lot of exposition, and side characters that do stand out but are nonetheless underwritten. So, sharply written, but maybe not the most tightly written.

doctor-strange-magic

Those supporting characters are out of focus at times because the film is rightfully keen to keep a laser focus on its lead. It would be easy to point out similarities between Strange and Tony Stark (rich, arrogant luminary brought low and humbled) and even Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes (no social niceties, uncomfortable with hugging), but these are surface level. What makes the character work so well (besides the magnetic performance) is that he’s given a beautifully plotted out, movie-long redemption arc wherein Strange learns to accept the things he had always rejected (and I don’t mean the existence of magic). No quick fixes; this is refreshingly gradual.

karl-mordo

Strange is the audience surrogate into a new world, and has to soak in all that exposition I mentioned before. But Strange is not a mere vessel, and his dynamic character helps to keep the film engaging. Also, the characters that inhabit this magical world are all performed exceptionally. Ejiofor sells the hell out of what is a really tough and ambiguous character in Karl Mordo, the kind of man who dangerously overcompensates in atoning for his past sins. Swinton constructs a playful and enigmatic Ancient One, and Benedict Wong as… Wong makes for a valuable and entertaining presence. In the case of the film’s villain, Kaecilius, smart choices off the page help to sell an underwritten character. Cosmetics help. The makeup on his and the other Zealots’ faces resemble a grotesque extension of what happens when you weep your eyes out. They wear their brokenness for all to see. It’s on the nose, but it works. And, Mads Mikkelsen’s menacing screen presence does a lot to animate the semi-flimsy role (his role as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale also has an eye condition, where he cries blood!).

kaecilius

A big draw of Doctor Strange is its visual effects. Director Scott Derrickson’s vision of reality manipulation is truly delightful to look at, and an interesting balance is struck where the gonzo visuals don’t go too far into craziness where a general audience won’t follow. Even so, the film might have been helped by going even further in its imagination. A couple really pivotal scenes play out with people in their spectral form, and the artificiality there goes some way to undercut the emotion and tension. Also, the Zealots’ weapons are almost invisible. I get it, they’re drawing on power from another dimension, but this uninspired and at-times confusing design seems less like a creative decision and more like a PG-13 compromise so as not to “see” blade pierce flesh.

kaleidoscope

As for the magic itself, it’s strikingly done with geometric shapes in place of beams of light, delivered with Wanda Maximoff-like hand gestures. The magic aesthetic (oddly foreshadowed by this year’s semi-noble semi-failure Warcraft) is complemented by a healthy dose of defying gravity, which is what really livens up the action scenes. But while the magic action is great, the hand-to-hand fights remind me of the cluttered choreography of something like Batman Begins. (And of course, some of the city-bending visuals are reminiscent of a brief scene in another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception, albeit taken to a whole other level.) There’s also a fair bit of magic-as-Buster-Keaton-slapstick, which is unexpected but welcome.

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In a lot of ways, Doctor Strange is a full-blooded medical drama as well as a magical extravaganza. This brings needed attention to Christine Palmer, who is easy to lose in the greater tapestry of the plot, and it gets at a really great aspect of Stephen Strange’s character. He’s not going to stop thinking like a doctor after his magical training. The tension between the medical and the mystical is laid bare in what I’ll call the “do no harm scene”, and it could well be the standout of the entire picture.

doctor-christine-palmer

Michael Giacchino’s score is solid, but feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The end credits music (“Master of the Mystic End Credits”) is a fantastic slice of trippy progressive-rock, throwing organs and sitars around with abandon. But by being so distinctive, it gives a tantalizing glimpse at what the whole score could have been – indeed, the main Doctor Strange theme heard throughout the film is oddly similar to Giacchino’s own Star Trek fanfare.

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Doctor Strange is a really solid magical action movie, with wonderful kaleidoscopic visuals, a fascinating central character, a great cast, and a partially-genius high concept finale. It’s very much a familiar template for an origin story, and the film has its shortcomings, but they don’t spoil the whole. The world of Doctor Strange is an interesting space to play in for two hours, a unique story about accepting mortality and where men are allowed to cry. 8/10.

 

P.S.: Paul McCartney walked into Abbey Road Studios during the mixing of the score. Upon hearing Giacchino and Derrickson working on “Master of the Mystic End Credits”, McCartney observed, “Shades of ‘Walrus’…”

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P.P.S.: *THE SPOILER DIMENSION* So Kaecilius works to serve the dread Dormammu. And the finale in the Dark Dimension is a provocative one, providing a unique climax to the conflict. Strange’s time loop of self-sacrifice certainly one-ups Tony Stark’s “sacrifice play” through a portal in The Avengers, and is a tidy bow on Strange’s arc to boot. The entire theme of the film is the acceptance of failure and death. Kaecilius refuses to accept the concept of time and thus mortality after death “insultingly” ravaged everyone he loved. For a long time, the Ancient One held onto artificially extended life, before finally accepting her legacy and the end of her story. In his career as a surgeon (being the best means juggling the highest stakes) Strange was motivated by his fear of failure. Strange’s willing submission to an eternity of skewering is one of those perfect metaphors that crop up in fiction sometimes. He embraces failure and mortality stubbornly, sacrificing himself with the same tenacity he had used before in his years of medical study. The very pathology of Strange’s arrogant past is redirected, aimed differently, to save the world. And in choosing to wear the broken watch that was Christine’s gift, Strange signals his knowledge that everything must eventually come to an end. Whether it’s a life, a world, or a relationship.

Oh, and the CGI monolith of Dormammu gives me bad flashbacks to Parallax in Green Lantern and Galactus in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Ben-Hur (2016) Film Review

Ben-Hur has been brought to the silver screen four times. The 1959 version directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston has passed into cinematic legend, known for its lavish production and iconic chariot race (though elements of it were lifted from the 1925 silent film). Its massive Oscar night in 1960 (11 wins – an unmatched quantity until Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King both also won 11) and pop culture impact cast a long shadow over this 2016 remake. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (who helmed the genuinely good Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), the 2016 Ben-Hur has proved to be the biggest financial bomb of this summer movie season. This seems to be a film no one in particular was asking for, but as one of the relative few who did give it its day in entertainment court, I find it to be a competent epic peppered with moments of real grace and emotion.

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Two boys in the wind.

In 33 A.D., Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) are inseparable comrades in Jerusalem, even as Jewish “Zealot” forces start to fight back against Roman domination. But haunted by the sense that he’ll always be an outsider in Judah’s family, Messala enlists with the Roman army. When war hero Messala returns to Jerusalem with Pontius Pilate’s (Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbaek) legion, the Zealot cause and Judah’s family intersect with dire consequences. Under the watchful eye of Pilate, Messala must betray his former family, and as Messala’s star rises, the condemned Judah Ben-Hur swears revenge. But as Judah’s wife Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) comes to believe after following the teachings of the carpenter Jesus (Rodrigo Santoro), revenge is not the only way.

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Toby Kebbell as Messala.

If you have never seen a version of Ben-Hur or read the novel, I think the plot of this film will be confusing to follow or, more importantly, tougher to care about. As I’ve seen the ’59 version I’m able to follow it clearly, but I also recognize how it could easily look opaque to those who haven’t. But that said, several huge changes from the revered 1950s film make a positive impression here. Judah and Messala are brothers as opposed to childhood friends, and their palpable bond is depicted as more intimate. Messala is not a cold villain, but a conflicted and sympathetic character, given a lot of narrative real estate within the runtime to establish his innate desire to do right alongside his considerable ambition. Toby Kebbell is key to this, bringing humanity to the role. In previous flawed movies such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Fantastic Four, Kebbell has a unique lone-wolf energy and proves to be a performer to watch.

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He’s complemented by the more straightforward efforts of Jack Huston in the title role. Huston fits the role well but doesn’t stand out, and the same can be said of Morgan Freeman as the horse owner and chariot race gambler Sheik Ilderim. Interestingly, a Welsh actor named Hugh Griffith played this role in the ‘59 version… in blackface. Griffith actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and the casting of Freeman is at least a step in the right direction. Freeman is largely in his standard mentor mold here – and induces a couple unintentional laughs due to his wig and his line in sports coaching – but there is the sense that he’s acting more than he might have had to, and that’s nice.

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Bekmambetov’s default style of camera work can be a bit frustrating, when you’re trying to will him into steadying his shot from a theater seat months after filming was wrapped. But the handling of action here is quite interesting. Earlier this year, Bekmambetov produced the surprisingly fine-tuned Hardcore Henry, featuring feature-length GoPro-esque POV action. That approach finds its way into the 1st Century in Ben-Hur. The naval battle is reimagined with a you-are-there shooting style, which means claustrophobia as you’re stuck below decks with the slave rowers and no “cheating” with fancy exterior shots depicting the wide scope of battle. I can’t say it entirely works, but when the POV is used as an asset in the toolbox, as in the chariot race, that’s when it starts to pay off. The chariot race isn’t a tour de force, but it is an intense and weighty sequence, with CGI mayhem, practical effects, and quick POV sequences coming together to accomplish a thankless task – to follow up one of the most famous action sequences of all time. At the end of the day, the 2016 chariot race doesn’t embarrass itself.

circus-chariot-race

The screenplay, by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, is hit and miss. On the one hand its streamlined structure and use of Messala work a charm, but on the other this is a story set in the 1st Century where characters say, “I’m good” and “Wow”. Sigh. But ultimately I have to give Clarke and Ridley a lot of credit for what they do with the ending. It takes all the pieces leading up to it, shuffles up events from the ’59 version, entirely changes others, and comes out the other side with a genuinely touching ending that blindsided me with how well it works. Love it.

messala-war-hero

Messala: The Winter Soldier

So why don’t I love this version of Ben-Hur overall? It’s a bit hard to say, because while I look back in retrospect and remember all the good, there are enough dodgy plot elements and stylistic choices that drag the enterprise as a whole down a ways. Maybe it’s because for all the truly inspired elements (Messala, the ending) there is a general sense that the film’s main mode is generic sword-and-sandals epic. Every time I want to really endorse the film I’m hit with the word “generic” like sand in the face. Ben-Hur is a somewhat schematic historical epic, but with a good antihero in Messala, and a great ending. 6/10.

horse-in-the-circus

A horse tears through the circus crowd. I smell spinoff.

2015: The Year of the Spy

2015 was the year of the spy. No less than five major studio films operated in the high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and the latest installment in the venerable James Bond franchise, Spectre. (I’m not including Bridge of Spies, as my focus here is on the action side of spy stories.) So how does each take on the genre fare? And who will take pole position in this game of cinematic espionage? Spoilers for this quintet of movies follow, but after all the work of spies is to discover secrets…

Napoleon

The square-jawed hero of another era.

Out of the five films, two pairs can be created based on the movies’ agendas relative to the genre and similar themes. This leaves an odd duck out, so let’s deal with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first. A movie in passionate love with the idea of capturing 60s cool, U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style with little substance. This wouldn’t be an issue, though, if it didn’t keep building up villains who turn out to be nothing-characters, or had the action chops to back up its sense of groovy fun. The film is a likable enough romp that gets by on the chemistry of its leading actors, but its slavish devotion to the tropes of the spy genre isn’t matched with the ingenuity to justify its swagger. This is spy movie as schematic, but dressed up in conspicuous fashion. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun time with good elements to recommend it, but it’s like gravy with no meal to put it on – and so it is not the best spy film of 2015.

Kingsman

What hides behind the impeccably tailored exterior?

The first pair we deal with balances love for the genre with the wits to amplify, undercut, and poke fun at it as well; both Kingsman and Spy play with the iconography of spy movies (and particularly Bond movies) in really cool ways. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make sure Kingsman is doing a hell of a lot thematically. Just to scratch the surface: the posh and familiar title disguises a strident satire of class politics, presenting heads of state and the 1% as monstrous and selfish hypocrites. The titular agency uses codenames out of Knights of the Round Table, but this picture of British upper crust stateliness is revealed through Michael Caine’s “Arthur” character to go beyond elitism into true corruption. The working-class hoodlum Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the one to see through the B.S. and save the organization from itself. As Eggsy emerges for the third act dressed in a bespoke suit, the film re-appropriates the idea of the gentleman spy as something open to all. As for the Bond nods, Kingsman takes several of the series’ standbys (the supervillain’s plan, the lethally equipped henchman, the idea of a sexual reward for Bond at the end) and dials them up to 11, lifting the veil from them. So as the film celebrates spy tradition, it also challenges it constantly. Kingsman: The Secret Service is thematically rich, imbued with bold comic book-y sensibilities, and bolstered by great action – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.

Susan Fight

Writer-director Paul Feig’s Spy, meanwhile, takes the Bondian archetype and lampoons him in the form of Jude Law’s bumbling but lucky agent Bradley Fine. In this comedy, Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a competent agent constantly underestimated and disrespected by her peers and supervisors because of her appearance and gender. The arc of the film brings the put-upon Susan into the field on a technicality, and as she saves the day in place of the gentleman spy parody Bradley Fine (not to mention in place of Jason Statham’s tough-as-nails action hero parody Rick Ford), the film deftly juggles the basics of the genre while having fun doing it. And from another angle, by championing Susan after the more conventionally attractive female agent (Morena Baccarin) has been revealed as traitorous, Spy once again subverts the genre, this time its desire to flaunt exotic and beautiful women. Spy is a solid action-comedy, showcasing Paul Feig’s reliable ability to both get laughs and craft memorable characters to deliver them – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.

James Bond Death

And then there were two. They feature certain elements in common… a rogue shadowy organization creating international chaos, an effort on the part of the establishment to shutter the good guys’ antiquated intelligence agencies which forces the hero to go rogue to get the job done, and a crucial trip to Morocco. Spectre has a couple good setpieces and a handful of effective moments, but is crippled by major storytelling problems. An irrelevant personal connection between Bond (Daniel Craig) and the villain, a weak and uninspired finale, limp action sequences such as the remarkably boring car chase in Rome, an unconvincing romance, hollow piggybacking of plot points from previous films, and an M-defends-MI6-from-bureaucrats subplot recycled without passion from its much better treatment in the prior installment Skyfall. Spectre coasts on the James Bond name when it should be blazing its own trail, going through the motions despite being one of the most expensive films ever made – and it is not the best spy film of 2015.

I’ll tell you what is, though, and that’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Every element of this thing sings. (And in fact, my original review really didn’t give it the credit it deserves.) Clockwork plot and structure, consistently excellent action setpieces (go to the opera!), warm but brittle character dynamics amongst the IMF team, airtight control of tone and tension. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s pulpy epic feels like a perfectly pulled off mission in itself. And then there’s Ilsa Faust.

Ilsa

The one, the only, the best.

Played with precision by Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is the key to it all. When Ilsa is introduced and helps breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of the Syndicate’s clutches, she feels like a plot device, a spy defined by McQuarrie’s scripted web of triple-crosses. But we later see that this scene comes wholeheartedly from character. Ilsa is a ruthlessly competent specialist, who also has this crazy idea that spies of allied countries have a responsibility toward each other. Her statuesque beauty paired with her matter-of-fact moral conviction makes Ilsa an incredibly magnetic character. In the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ilsa Faust surpasses Imperator Furiosa, Adonis Creed, Finn, and Rey as the breakout action hero of 2015.

Motorcycle Chase

Mission: Impossible leaving dust in its wake. Not pictured: the competition.

It’s strange how things work out sometimes, as I would never have thought that the latest James Bond film, coming off the heels of the hypnotically great Skyfall, would be my least favorite spy movie of 2015. But even so, it fills a corner of the genre. Spectre is spy film as portentous drama. Kingsman: The Secret Service is spy film as anarchic statement. Spy is spy film as wacky satire. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is spy film as rosy-eyed throwback. And Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is spy film as immaculate time bomb. Light the fuse…

Spies of 2015

Suicide Squad (2016)

I’ve been waiting for a good film to bring the “villain-as-hero” concept to the world of mainstream blockbusters. Before Sony’s plans for a Spider-Man cinematic universe crumbled into dust, they had plans for a Sinister Six film, flipping the script to make the friendly neighborhood webslinger the villain. The potential of this provocative basic concept is why I was rooting for Disney’s Maleficent, and for Suicide Squad. Both have disappointed. Suicide Squad is crippled by weak structure, terrible villains for the leading villains to fight, toothless action, and not so much a bad story as a non-story… even as it houses a few strong performances and at times feels like it’s being held together by actors’ charisma and Scotch tape.

Suicide Squad

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an idea: to create a “dirty dozen” unit of supervillains as a deniable asset for the government. Hence the titular Squad: The infamous hitman Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith); the Joker’s (Jared Leto) moll Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie); repentant pyromaniac Chato Santana/El Diablo (Jay Hernandez); grubby thief Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney); and human reptile Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Waller assigns Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to wrangle the Squad, but when June Moone/Enchantress (Cara Delevigne) tries to restore an ancient empire on earth, the Squad gains a world-saving purpose.

Amanda Waller

The most prominent quality in the movie is a trio of standout performances. Margot Robbie kills it as Harley Quinn, bringing layers to a character that desperately needs it, as the movie itself seems to fetishize her. (A flashback sequence in a club is probably the worst scene in the film; the bit with Harley on the car, and Robbie’s reading of the simple line “Bullshit”, are among the best moments of the film.) Will Smith uses a great modulation of his natural charisma for the character of Deadshot, and his flashback scenes are definite highlights of the movie. But best of all is Suicide Squad’s own God and Devil, Amanda Waller. I love this character. No one can give a dry line reading like Viola Davis, and as it turns out, Waller belongs here because she’s a villain among villains. Granted, a couple of the character’s actions make her look really incompetent – she only unleashes the very threat that the Squad must overcome and then inadvertently makes it worse – but Davis is so good in the role that it’s all but forgotten.

Harley Quinn

Writer-director David Ayer made one of the best war films of the 21st Century in Fury, which relies heavily on the chemistry of its tank crew. Similarly, in the precious moments when the Squad members just settle down and shoot the shit, the movie starts to work. And when the villain-as-hero aspect comes into play with the Squad hatching schemes as an aside before slowly coming to the light, that’s good stuff as well. The problem with the Squad itself is that while one or two characters bring spice to the table, there’s little to no sense of why Ayer has brought these particular characters together. Individual members’ power sets are barely utilized, and shockingly little teamwork plays into the finale. With characters like Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc, it feels like the movie thinks they’re crowd-pleasing scene stealers, when in practice they are respectively an underused Aussie caricature who throws two boomerangs in the entire film (not to mention whose schtick was beaten to the punch by Deadpool), and a reptile-man who mostly stands in the background of scenes and grunts. So even though the actors have all shown up to play, the title Squad is a mixed bag at best.

Deadshot

The film is a structural nightmare. After the characters are established in a flurry of flashbacks, we cut out the second act and go straight to the third-act setting. This imbalance feels really lazy; not to give the game away, but the present-day plot takes place in one steakhouse, one briefing room, one prison, and one nondescript abandoned city. No, I’m not leaving anything out. The plot draws a straight line between setup and resolution with precious little of the and thens or but sos that make up an engaging narrative. It’s one thing to forego a three-act structure if you’re Tarkovsky or Fellini, but when you’re a summer blockbuster it really is a prerequisite.

Pentagon

One of four settings in the film’s plot.

The decision to jam a bunch of flashbacks at the outset isn’t bad in and of itself, but it leads to some problems. The two central romances of the film (Harley/Joker, Flag/June) are artificially handwaved into existence in flashback and never begin to convince. Also, the in-your-face editing style can be an annoyance. Several times in these scenes, the Joker gets freakier than usual, and the entire frame convulses in purple and green. That’s not how you shoot the Joker; we’re meant to be trapped with an insane live wire, deprived of the escape of trigger-happy music video editing. On a big picture level, the spine of the plot gives very vague reasoning as to why the Squad is assembled, until a threat comes from within and suddenly the Squad has to take down a generic villain. So the plot plods along with no point, until there is a point, and it’s terribly embarrassing. (More on that later.)

Squad Shoots the Breeze

More of that…

It’s come out that the studio hired Trailer Park, who had worked on the film’s trailers, to cut an alternate edit of the film. Whether their work is reflected on screen or not, it feels like it is. Suicide Squad feels more like a sizzle reel than a movie. One aspect of this is the attempt to make Suicide Squad a jukebox movie, in the wake of Guardians of the Galaxy. I wouldn’t normally namecheck that movie, but this film actually uses “Spirit in the Sky”, a song from Guardians of the Galaxy! The excessive use of licensed songs, again, isn’t inherently bad, but the songs feel so obviously tacked-on late in the edit, as they don’t seem to have any synergy with the moving pictures they soundtrack. And there are just so many – there are four in the first seven minutes of runtime! Overall, DC just keeps finding new ways to make poorly structured movies. I long for the days of awkwardly placed Clark Kent flashbacks in Man of Steel.

Enchantress

… less of this, please.

The film’s setup demands that the supervillains of the Squad must face a villain of their own, and the choice of Enchantress and her brother Incubus seriously hobbles the movie. The use of a magical villain opens the doors for fights against indistinct foot soldiers, overstretched CGI, and a total mismatch with the Squad’s power levels. Imagine all the missions the Squad could be sent on: a perilous heist, a Seven Samurai-type defensive gig, an assassination. But in their place, the film climaxes in a visually overexposed battle with an embarrassing Cara Delevigne, and Incubus, who looks like nothing so much as the Gods of Egypt version of The Destroyer from Thor.

Incubus

Think about your art direction before you commit.

Which brings us to the other uber-villain of the picture. I know it sounds counterintuitive given that this is the best-known villain character in the movie, but I don’t think the Joker should have even been in the film. He has such an incredibly trivial impact on the story that he just becomes an annoying sideshow. Plus there’s Jared Leto’s characterization, as the actor is trying so hard but coming up with so little. Taking cues more from a frat bro Instagram gangster than from the unpredictable Clown Prince of Crime, this Joker is a miss. This is what Leto went full method for?

Joker

I’d give Suicide Squad more credit if it felt like a movie. A movie with an appreciable structure, that flows as an unfolding story. But as it is, it holds a smattering of quite good elements, lost at sea among editing snafus, action with no edge, songs used as transparent shortcuts, and storytelling gaffes. A trio of solid performances (Robbie, Smith, Davis) is matched by a trio of embarrassing villains (Joker, Enchantress, Incubus). And Suicide Squad ends up fouling up the good will it begins to create. 3/10.

 

P.S.: Brilliant use of Batman’s “Beautiful Lie” musical theme from Batman v Superman in the alley scene. And there’s something thrilling about hearing Batman utter the line, “It’s over, Deadshot”. Somehow it’s like a pure comic book-y injection.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

2016 is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. This puts the onus on Star Trek Beyond to be something more than an entertaining ride, and as it turns out, Beyond gives the franchise a big wet kiss for a birthday present. The film feels very Star Trek-ky, like a story of the original 1960s show on steroids. It’s a dizzying action bonanza, it’s a meaningful tale of ideals being lost and found in space, and it’s surprisingly engaged with what Star Trek means. While still flawed, Beyond has charm to spare, delivering as both a blockbuster and a subtly nerdy filibuster on what the franchise represents.

STAR TREK BEYOND

In the 23rd Century, the USS Enterprise is more than halfway through its five-year mission of exploration and diplomacy. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feels the ennui of life in deep space, while first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some disheartening news. A distress signal to the Federation’s advanced starbase Yorktown leads the Enterprise into a deadly trap, engineered by the primal Krall (Idris Elba). With the crew grounded on an alien planet, can Kirk and company save them? And can communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) unravel the mystery of Krall?

MVP Leonard McCoy

Perhaps the greatest strength of this current sequence of films is the cast, admirably filling the shoes of venerated actors who originated the roles. Beyond pulls off a nice trick, being much more of an ensemble movie than its two predecessors. Whereas before laser focus was on Kirk and Spock, here every main character gets at least a couple moments to shine. Screenwriters Simon Pegg (also starring, as engineer Scotty) and Doug Jung facilitate this by splitting up the cast into pairs and letting the characters play off each other. So a contemplative Kirk mentors young ensign Chekov (Anton Yelchin, tragically no longer with us); Scotty bonds with resourceful alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, endearing); Uhura and Sulu (John Cho) learn what the villains are about; and best of all, Spock and sawbones Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban, always the MVP) balance their delightful verbal sparring with a lot of heart.

Uhura

So checking in with the heroes is a lot of fun. But also, the screenplay is not afraid to pepper wonderfully moral and dorky Star Trek goodness throughout. There’s something really cool about hearing the heroes of a massive action tentpole dole out fortune cookie wisdom about unity, peace, humanism, and the importance of diplomacy. And when these characters have been established as relatable and endearing, this stuff is even more important, because it’s aspirational. By starring relatable characters living in an enlightened time, Star Trek is saying that the future of humanity is brighter, and presents this as a matter of fact.

Yorktown

The technology on display factors into this as well. The Yorktown is a great location, an M.C. Escher painting of a starbase, where gravity bends to the architecture. But just by being there and being so impressive, the base symbolizes how far humanity can go when united. Fittingly, the approach to Yorktown is the most spectacular sequence in the film. With jaw-dropping SF visuals and Michael Giacchino’s truly lovely score, it’s really something.

Krall

But of course, the Federation’s idealism is challenged by Krall. The problem with Krall is that he’s better in concept than in execution. A foil for the utopian Federation who believes that only struggle and chaos breed progress, he creates a twisted parody of the Federation by bringing down ships from different cultures and feeding on diverse species for his own personal gains. The idea is there, but it’s not more than half-cooked in the movie proper. (Krall’s character does take an essential turn, but I can’t say more about that twist without boldly going into spoilers. See the P.S.) Krall isn’t a total loss of a character; but what we have on screen for most of the runtime is a handicapped Idris Elba, feral and growling, looking for MacGuffin #14 to make generic superweapon #82 to enact stock villainous plan #47.

Captured Enterprise Crew

No one said that stopping the stock villainous plan couldn’t look good, though. Director Justin Lin goes above and beyond crafting the action, spinning the camera on its axis and defying gravity with great energy. A particular highlight is the harrowing, if slightly overlong, attack on the Enterprise sequence. (In my first viewing I sometimes lost the geography of these dynamic scenes, but a second go-round rendered them more coherent.) Because Lin had come off directing four Fast and Furious spectacles, his hiring was a subject of a lot of snark and sarcasm. But what’s lost in these discussions is that the true draw of that freewheeling franchise is not the surface stuff, but the teamwork of people who love each other. And that’s very Star Trek.

The Trio

Beyond exudes a constant love of Star Trek, from an understanding of its tropes to numerous easter eggs for fans. A few favorites: When Kirk fights Krall, the music resembles Fred Steiner’s (in)famous fight music from the original series. The Yorktown was the name of the Enterprise in Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek treatment. There are explicit references to the era of the underseen Enterprise TV series. And the approach to Yorktown reminds me of the absurdly long, lingering and loving approach to the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just more narratively economical.

Scotty

Engineer. Brewer of moonshine. Moonlighter as a writer.

The humor is also on point throughout, which is no surprise considering co-writer Simon Pegg’s previous credits on extraordinary dramedies like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and TV sitcom Spaced. Much of the entertainment value here just comes from seeing the ensemble play off each other, with McCoy and Spock in particular spinning earnestness into comedy gold. The character work and action are on form, supported by a big heart. And even as an element like Krall and his faceless swarm is rough around the edges, the way Beyond gets the Star Trek of it so very right is nothing (for Keenser) to sneeze at. A weak 9/10.

 

P.S.: *TO EXPLORE STRANGE NEW SPOILERS*

The Balthazar Edison twist is absolutely in keeping with the tropes of the original show, where several starship captains went native and insane. (See “Patterns of Force”, “The Omega Glory”, “Bread and Circuses”, and “Whom Gods Destroy”.) So when Kirk is fighting Edison he’s fighting us, the aggressive and tribalistic human nature that the Federation has risen above. Speaking of that scene and its meta-conflict, “That’s what I was born into” gives me chills and may go on to become an iconic Star Trek quote. I love that this message of idealism is the Trek equivalent of an action movie one-liner.

That's what I was Born into

“I’d rather die saving lives than live with ending them. That’s what I was born into.”

Meanwhile, following the death of Leonard Nimoy’s Ambassador Spock, Zachary Quinto’s Spock considers quitting Starfleet and picking up where the elder Spock left off. And the young Spock finds in the Ambassador’s possessions the cast photo from Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier. So it’s the very idea of Star Trek, and the community of that original group of characters, that convinces Spock to continue in Starfleet. Fascinating.

Spock Chekov

There’s a bit where Scotty says that he didn’t want to beam Spock and McCoy up at the same time, for fear of “splicing” the two. Trek fans know that splicing the two would result in someone resembling one James T. Kirk.

And finally, the twin dedication to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin is poignant. Especially when Kirk’s “To absent friends” toast cuts right to a shot with Chekov. To the stars they return.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

There has never been a superhero movie like Captain America: Civil War. Weighty character drama, politics, gritty action, comic-booky action, and humor are all pushed to the limit and brought into harmony. The film contains a moment that might be the funniest in a Marvel movie, alongside the most gut-wrenching drama. It can do both, folks. Characters who have been around forever in this cinematic universe have emotional stories, while two important new heroes are debuted. How does this movie even function? That Civil War works at all is impressive. That it works this well is incredible.

Tony and Steve

After an Avengers mission in Nigeria results in 26 civilian casualties, the superheroes are brought up to speed on the Sokovia Accords, a United Nations document bringing the Avengers under bureaucratic oversight from a UN panel. The heroes are split on the issue. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of any measure to legitimize Avengers operations, both for professional accountability and personal guilt. But Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) would rather cut through the bureaucracy to ensure that the Avengers can always go where they deem themselves most needed. Both are trying to save lives and serve the greater good, in their own way. But their disagreement over the Accords, as well as Steve’s need to protect formerly brainwashed best friend Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) from the arrest Tony and the UN know is rightful, ends up drawing battle lines. Tony and Steve each find support from five allies, and the stage is set for catastrophe. And all the while, the unassuming Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has his own mysterious agenda.

Steve and Bucky vs Tony

What grounds the central battle of wills is that both Steve and Tony are right, and both are wrong. That makes it the most satisfying kind of heroic conflict, because both perspectives are aired throughout the film in smart conversations and through their actions. The actors are up to the challenge, as Evans plays respectful defiance really well, while Downey Jr. is like an exposed nerve, so open and vulnerable. It all explodes in a notably contained (not necessarily restrained) climax featuring the marquee fight between Captain America and Iron Man. But the thing is, during this title bout, we are internally begging Steve and Tony to just – stop – fighting. Our emotional investment in the characters in some way eclipses the obligation for an action-packed finale. It’s character before blind reliance on cool spectacle. And that, in microcosm, is why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works.

Team Iron Man vs Team Cap

A big reason why Civil War is so successful as drama is that the huge ensemble is humanized and many have their own character arcs. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) faces the consequences of the Nigerian disaster, which she feels is her fault, and must come to terms with the power inside her that she doesn’t understand. The Vision (Paul Bettany) begins to explore his own “humanity”, but might not be thrilled that he did. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) brings in an everyman perspective. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) plays diplomat and constantly tries to prevent violence between the factions, using her skills of manipulation from a genuine emotional place. So all these established characters are served, while two new heroes complement the story without overshadowing it.

Peter Parker

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is not shoehorned into the proceedings. He’s presented as the uncompromised vigilante. When Tony looks at him it’s like he’s seeing a glimmer of where Steve Rogers came from, and the nobility that still defines him. Tony’s desire for conciliation with Steve makes Tony’s relationship with Peter, and the movie’s use of the web-slinger, more integral to the story than a because-we-can cameo. In a movie that throws around big concepts like UN oversight and accountability, Peter’s inclusion is a show-don’t-tell reflection of what a superhero is at the core, and his streetwise perspective grounds the larger-than-life conflict.

T'Challa

If Spider-Man’s is well done, then the introduction of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is perfect. Everything about his role in the film impresses. Boseman brings a quiet gravity to his scenes, his Black Panther costume is one of the best comic book translations on screen, his fighting style is instantly distinctive, and most important of all, his character arc cuts right to the heart of Civil War’s thematic core. What is one’s duty to family? To friends? Can the cycle of revenge and trauma be broken? Where does a superhero’s responsibility to the world conflict with other agendas? Civil War’s mature screenplay asks these questions, with the film being nonetheless appropriate for kids who just want to see well-drawn heroes in entertaining fights. It’s a balancing act that other contemporary superhero movies bungle.

Helmut Zemo

The villainous side of things is a rewarding slow-burn mystery story, of all things. Daniel Brühl does great work as Zemo, giving a disturbing portrait of the kind of person who can present a genial face in public, while building a bomb in the closet. Zemo is a very singular kind of comic book villain, defined by subtlety, intelligence, and persistence. Has anyone noticed that previous Marvel villains Alexander Pierce, Ultron, and Loki (in The Avengers) all have the same motivation? They rail against the chaos and infighting among humans, and set out to bring order on a global scale – ending war with a violent cleansing that the heroes must stop by blowing stuff up real good. There is no such bluster in the ending of Civil War, as an intimacy of setting and stakes reap a lot of dramatic rewards. The way Zemo interacts with the story as a whole, and the finale in particular, quells any fear that he’s one antagonist too many in a busy movie, as his subtle machinations and shadowy menace complement the themes of the film very nicely.

Airport

At the end of the day, while Captain America: Civil War has a lot going on under the surface, it’s still a seriously kick-ass action flick. The four action scenes in the film escalate in meaningfulness, until the finale goes for the emotional punches by way of actual punches. But the crown jewel action centerpiece is the airport sequence, half-cartoonish, half-intense, and all incredible. It’s like a twenty-minute comic book come to life, but one informed by the very specific characterization and precision-strike humor we’ve come to expect. Dizzying choreography, dynamic pacing, and well-judged match-ups make for an absolutely spectacular showdown. While not everyone gets a big show-stopping moment, each of the twelve heroes contributes to a sequence that will go down as an all-timer in the comic book movie canon.

Steve and Bucky

A small detail I pick up on is that the film takes potential weaknesses and turns them into strengths. The less significant example is that the physical resemblance between Bucky and Zemo (potentially confusing for general audiences) impacts the plot at one point. The more significant is that Bucky wonders aloud if he is worth all the trouble his presence causes. Now, of course he’s worth it to Steve and that’s the whole point, but the line plays with the fairly bare bones way his connection to Steve played out in the first Captain America movie. Civil War’s depiction of Bucky, brought to life with broken dignity and wounded charisma by Sebastian Stan, retroactively makes his setup in previous films better by association.

Wanda Lagos

On the subject of negatives, the most I can come up with is a subjective one. A lot of the setup for the film is predicated on the “downer” reality check of civilian casualties of previous Marvel movies, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s something a little dramatically convenient and obvious about this, like being lectured after eating a cake about how many carbs are now up to no good in your body. (It’s an interesting choice because the whole point of Ultron‘s ending is to reconcile Avengers and civilians.) But the way the theme is actually implemented in the film works a charm and adds to the complexity of the story.

Tony and Bucky

There are many ways Civil War is unique among superhero movies, and its ending is no exception. If it’s not a spoiler to say that Civil War is smart, then it’s not a spoiler to say that the ending is not pat and wrapped up in an artificial bow. The emotional wounds have not been healed, the ideological conflicts of the film have not been resolved, and the film leaves the story in a rich place for other stories in this universe to pick up on. Captain America: Civil War is a globe hopping, down-to-earth political thriller, which is also a character-driven drama, which is also a superhero extravaganza with effective incidental humor, and which also contains an all-timer comic book action scene. What other movie can claim this? What other movie can claim this and be this good? 10/10.

Steve Helicopter

A visual representation of Civil War‘s balancing act. On the left, comic book goodness. On the right, grounded drama. In the middle, a specimen of a man/movie.

Editorial Corner – My Least Favorite Scene in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This editorial contains spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It’s the calm at the beginning of the third act. We cut to a wide shot of a snowy mountaintop in what look like the Himalayas (but who can say?). It’s a vision or hallucination, because Superman comes upon his late adoptive human father, Jonathan Kent, tending to some farm business. Pa Kent begins a monologue – he explains how when he was younger, he saved the Kent family farm from flooding. He was rewarded with cake. But in the process, he had inadvertently flooded the next farm over. Pa Kent would go on to hear the screams of drowning horses in his sleep every night. He was a hero. But the collateral damage was a poor price to pay for that heroism. Then, it’s abruptly over. Our regularly scheduled build-up to an action climax continues.

Jonathan Kent

There are, unfortunately, lots and lots of candidates for my least favorite scene in Batman v Superman. In fact, on technical, visceral, emotional, and other levels, there are certainly worse scenes. But I’m writing about this one because, brief as it is, it actually represents several things wrong with the film, and I’ll use this scene (heretofore referred to as the Pa Kent Horse Bit) as a sort of skeleton key to unlock them. So let’s go down a few avenues the Pa Kent Horse Bit opens up, saving the worst for last.

Heroism Brood

It’s a non sequitur scene with no set-up, and cutting it out wouldn’t really affect anything. The Pa Kent Horse Bit comes and goes like a goddamn ninja. Where is Superman when he has this vision? Has he gone to sleep and had this dream? The film doesn’t care to lead into the scene in any fashion, and after it’s over, we again careen miles away in narrative space. The scene before doesn’t feature Superman; the scene after doesn’t feature Superman. It’s not just that the way the scene is framed is suspect; the scene is not framed at all. Indeed, the editing of this film as a whole is a train wreck. This manifests in several ways. The Batmobile car chase is a confusion of jagged cuts, and if you developed a drinking game based around every time the film fades to black and back in again, the personal consequences would be disastrous. Batman v Superman laughs at your mortal ideas of scene transitions.

It’s a dream/hallucination sequence in a movie drowning in them. In a related sense to the broken editing on display, dreams, time-travel dreams within prophetic nightmares, and hallucinations are everywhere in the movie. It’s lazy storytelling to rely so heavily on these, not just for the plot but also just to cut to something interesting. Despite coming out of nowhere, Bruce Wayne’s dream of a dystopian Earth marked by a tyrannical Superman is about ten times more interesting than what’s going on the film’s waking state. And I would advise the movie to do something with that nightmare from a character perspective (like to viscerally show and explore Bruce’s fear of what having a Superman can do to society), but it is more than likely meant just to set up future movies. But whether it is or not, more to the point, it exists outside of what is going on in this movie. And the story we’re supposed to care about is left limping.

It features dialogue which tries to trick the audience into thinking it’s profound and mature. Like a lot of the screenplay, the Pa Kent Horse Bit is serious-minded and trying hard to come off as meaningful. The mountaintop setting fits with the film’s lofty ambitions. But these ambitions are not matched by true exploration of issues that the film drops into a blender, and the result is an experience that just becomes inert for long stretches. And the entire crux of the screenplay relies on something deeply immature: the lack of communication between the heroes. When Batman and Superman meet after the Batmobile chase, they exchange scowls and petty threats. There’s no articulation of grievances. We get “The Bat is dead”, but not, “What do you think you’re doing, wantonly killing and branding criminals who may or may not end up dead in jail?” We get “Do you bleed? … You will”, but not, “Your being here led directly to thousands and thousands dead in Metropolis”. I get it, it’s hard to get them to fight unless they’re both jerks, but it’s still the opposite of maturity.

Superman Bleed

“Do I bleed? Gross!”

Superman is passive. In the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman walks up to the shade of Pa Kent, gets a life lesson dumped on him, and exit stage left. This illuminates a bigger problem: this sequel to Man of Steel suffers from a crippling fear of letting its Man of Steel speak. Throughout, Superman’s default status is brooding silently. There’s a montage where he saves people, which is rendered unintentionally funny by Superman’s apparent deep sadness in doing so… but we the audience are never privy to what Superman is thinking. We hear a whole bunch about what everyone else is saying, but what’s going on in that Kryptonian brain? There’s a scene where Senator Finch invites Superman to a Senate committee for a dialogue. This is it, this is the moment when we’ll finally hear Superman’s side of the story, his perspective! … And the scene is short-circuited by a terrorist bombing that serves no story function except to be hard-hitting and edgy. Go back to your daily brooding, Superman. Even though this is your own sequel.

sam_r4_v11c3_151002_17mj_g_r709f.362886.tif

“………………”

But here’s the point of no return. Its true sentiment is that heroism is not worth the trouble. The message in Pa Kent’s ghostly form is clear, and it reeks. But of what? Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder has publicly spoken of his admiration of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a novel he intends to adapt for the screen. It’s a brazen beacon of Objectivist ideas, extolling what is known as “rational self-interest”. And this starts to make sense of what’s going on in the scene. You can be a hero, saving the farm. But the price of that heroism will sure learn you, son. Jonathan Kent’s widow is also a presence in the film, and judging by her big scene with Superman, Jonathan and Martha “You don’t owe this world a thing” Kent were made for each other.

Martha Don't Owe

“You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did. But use your powers to save me and Lois, mm-kay?”

As a side note: the way Jonathan Kent is set up as a presence before the Pa Kent Horse Bit is nothing short of baffling. After the Senate bombing, Superman tells Lois in a should-have-been-poignant scene, “I’ve been living my life the way my father saw it, righting wrongs” and being a hero. Okay, so he’s talking about Jor-El, his Kryptonian father, right? He goes on to say that the idea of Superman is “the dream of a farmer from Kansas”, his father’s dream. What??? Anyone who has seen Man of Steel saw Pa Kent sacrifice himself to keep his son’s superpowers a secret. I cannot emphasize that enough. So these lines of dialogue are bald-faced lies. And in service of what? The only possible reason would be to retroactively change Pa Kent’s outlook on Superman. But the entire sentiment of the Pa Kent Horse Bit is exactly the kind of subversion of heroism we got in Man of Steel. The screenplay is such a fumble that it can’t even stay internally consistent on major character moments.

So a short while after the Pa Kent Horse Bit, Superman sacrifices himself to destroy the abominable monster Doomsday. But here’s the thing – he sacrificed himself without having ever getting over the situation and being Superman. Because Snyder and the other filmmakers have created a world that makes the Superman concept untenable. Now, Snyder has a track record of using explicit Superman/Christ metaphors, especially in Man of Steel. Going with that, the Pa Kent Horse Bit should be Superman’s Gethsemane moment, the scene in which Superman despairs of his preordained responsibility before finally making the choice to face his destiny. But the film is inept. It can’t make the scene work on any level – it’s not meaningful, it’s not touching, it’s not relatable, and it carries a poisonous sentiment. The Pa Kent Horse Bit? Maybe I should call it the Pa Kent Horseshit.

No Gethsemane

In plain sight, the scene illuminates something weird. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are films that question the very nature of heroism, but not in a constructive way. Rather, it’s in a manner that promotes selfishness and complacency. The ideal of Superman is torn down. The DC cinematic universe, a series of superhero tentpole blockbuster films, is built on the foundation of stories that are essentially deconstructions of heroism. And that is insane to me.

Trinity

There’s even more wrong with the film that what’s illuminated by the Pa Kent Horse Bit. I would need to record an audio commentary to cover them. The raw deal is that, again, this universe of films faces an upward battle. Batman v Superman, a movie supposed to be selling the Justice League, features a rapport-free, virtually teamwork-free team-up of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and the latter two heroes never speak a word to each other. Anything can be turned around, with the necessary resources and the right people guiding a film. But with Snyder prepping to shoot Justice League Part One within the month, I am worried. The DC universe can’t afford another $250+ million miscalculation. Suicide Squad looks interesting (and its multimillion dollar reshoots look to add character moments and humor), but I’ll be most looking forward to Wonder Woman in 2017. Not only is it the first high-profile female-led superhero film since Elektra in 2005, it also figures to be the first movie in this DC superhero universe not to be a deconstruction of heroism.