Avengers: Infinity War- Fear In A Handful Of Dust

No specific spoilers but this is written for folks who have seen this movie. A general spoiler-free review would just consist of “Holy shit, it’s really good.”

3352819-avengers-3-infinity-war-21-wallpaper

A thought occurred to me while watching some of the Avengers: Infinity War actors on Jimmy Kimmel the other night about the nature of growing up and maturity, and not just with regard to the film. Many, many years ago I used to walk to school every day, about 30 to 40 minutes both ways, and every morning I would listen to 106.7 KROQ’s morning show starring Kevin and Bean. This station has been the birthplace of a lot of talented folks like Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew Pinsky but one of my favorites and an eventual collaborator with the former was Jimmy Kimmel, originally known as just “Jimmy the Sports Guy”. As a kid I didn’t know much about sports and I didn’t really care but he was given about a 60 second spot every other hour and I liked listening to Kimmel, he had a good voice and a sharp wit.

But if you had told me that one day he would go on to be one of the more entertaining and decent late night hosts on a major television network I might have picked up my pace on the way to school out of disbelief and distrust. And yet here we are, and I’m a little proud of how far the guy has come. The same can be said of Marvel, a company that was once a plucky publishing house with a friendly rivalry with DC Comics. I like to think I grew up with them as well, and while DC had had Batman and Superman movies out for years, Marvel wasn’t even on the board until the late 90s. Then X-Men came out and it was pretty good even for how vigorously it seemed to want to distance itself from the source material. And the Sony and Fox purchased properties that followed varied in quality until Marvel finally went all in on Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. and the rest, as they say, is history.

29-avengers-infinity-war-20.nocrop.w710.h2147483647.2x

Ten years later Marvel, now a powerhouse film studio owned by Disney, has produced a bracing, thrilling, charming, breathtaking, complicated-yet-accessible crossover film, the first of its kind in the history of cinema in Avengers: Infinity War and the word that keeps coming to mind is maturity. Despite the obvious financial success of all 18 films in its canon up until this point, Marvel has been edging further away from fun superhero movies and closer and closer to what I’d describe as grown-up features. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably the best example of this which, even without the fireworks and effects, is just a damn solid spy drama and character piece. Black Panther is also a step in this direction with its social commentary and conscience on full display. And in Infinity War, with the superb work of the Russo brothers, Marvel has produced probably the least kid-friendly superhero movie of all time, besides maybe Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. I don’t say that to suggest children couldn’t enjoy IW, not by any stretch, in fact its a lot more fun than I was anticipating and I laughed out loud several times. However, there’s a darkness to this film, as fantastical and otherworldly as it is. I’d argue that it’s not, in fact, really about the Avengers as much as it is Thanos’ film from start to finish.

With that maturity comes one of the most shocking and heartbreaking finales of any tentpole franchise film ever, darker than The Empire Strikes Back, darker than the death of Mufasa in The Lion King, darker than that other Vin Diesel vehicle, The Iron Giant. I obviously don’t want to go into detail because with the forthcoming sequel/continuation due out a year from now, there is little doubt the story will find a way to undo the extensive damage that Thanos has wrought, rather I’d like to marinate in the feelings and sensations that followed the conclusion of Infinity War. By now, as an audience, we are all well trained by Marvel to sit patiently through the credits for whatever morsel or tease of information Kevin Fiege and company see fit to brush off the table, but this time was different. This time I sat in relative silence along with the rest of the theater trying to process the deep sense of loss and impermanence, the feeling of tragedy without succor. And in retrospect, from the first trailer, they told us it was coming all along, “I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail all the same. Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.” 

Avengers-Infinity-War-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Teen-Groot

So where do we go from here? Where can Marvel go from here? Ant-Man and The Wasp is due out this summer and although that looks like a charming diversion I feel like we’ve just stood out in the pouring rain at some misty station, watching the love of our life get on a train to some new life without us, like a scene out of a Miyazaki film and now we’re expected to just move on and take a Tinder date to Applebee’s. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Paul Rudd and he might be the only face from that universe that I could handle right now, but I’m just not sure my heart is ready to love again. In case anyone missed it, the logo at the end of the post-credits scene has foreshadowed the arrival of Captain Marvel to the MCU, the long overdue female superhero pic. My expectations are low, for some reason, even though Marvel has continuously found a way to exceed them. I mean, how did they make Guardians of the Galaxy work? How was Ant-Man in any way a good idea? And how did they land Avengers: Infinity War so perfectly, so fantastically, so thrillingly that they’ve absolutely broken my heart and all I want is more.

null

Advertisements

Ready Player One: Weaponized Nostalgia

I really liked Ready Player One. As far as critical analysis, that’s not exactly the kind of concise deconstruction I go for, but it’s difficult to avoid over-complicating a thing that isn’t very complicated. The fact that I liked it came as a kind of surprise, however. I read the book that it is based on years ago when I received it, rather appropriately and uninvitedly, in a Loot Crate box. And much like Loot Crate, the movie itself is chock full of nostalgic tchotchke; junky toys referencing everything geek culture, from your Star Trek/Wars, Firefly, Batman, Doctor Who, to Power Rangers/Voltron, blah blah, etc., etc., that, when taken individually has little to no value but when lumped together in a big orgiastic cornucopia of nostalgia is actually kind of a blast, somehow, even though in the long run you know you’re just playing with memories of fun. The book itself is absolutely that, an entertaining read that falls apart under scrutiny or disappears between the couch cushions, it’s a bit wish-fulfillment, a lot of idealizing, and more than a little bit derivative but, in it’s unabashed enthusiasm and self-awareness, is successful in being what it sets out to be: fun. The film version, directed by Steven Spielberg with a script from author Ernest Cline and the wretched Zak Penn, amplifies that experience the way Guy Fieri amplifies an appetizer menu in the sense that it’s easy to make fun of the movie equivalent of Trash Can Brisket Nachos but we’re all much better off just going for the ride.

ready_player_one

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a film version would be superior to the book, this is largely a visual story and it’s a little bit underwhelming to read about someone playing an 8-bit Atari video game. The representation of the Oasis itself, the virtual online Universe that is the setting for most of the movie, is as visually sumptuous and vivid as one could hope for and so overly saturated with pop culture characters and references that it’s going to keep the Achievement Hunters busy for days, possibly weeks, to track them all down. This is the aspect of the book that I was convinced would overwhelm the basic quest narrative, the need to rely entirely on these references and nostalgia to keep the audience amused, but this is Spielberg, of course. The man is nothing if not good at young adult characters stumbling through an adventure, and it’s the charming cast that persists as the focus. In fact a lot of it, particularly the finale, kept reminding me of The Goonies (directed by Richard Donner, but produced by Spielberg) with its themes of adults trying to steal everything magic and fun from the world and the kids doing their best to stop them.

What was a legitimate surprise is the tightening and pacing of the story itself, with first time scripter in Cline and Zak Penn, whose collaborations with Simon Kinberg succeeded in middling the comic book universe with gems like Elektra, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, and his original script for The Avengers that Joss Whedon promptly chucked out a window. But where his dialogue is usually monosyllabic and overly simplistic, in Ready Player One, it’s perfectly fine and I chuckled more than a few times. The big improvements are in the challenges themselves, the book had a real Slumdog Millionaire feel to it where it just so happens that Wade was an EXPERT at that particularly specific game. This lost some of relatability and sense of suspense but in the movie there is a lot more emphasis on the teamwork aspect of the hunt and what can be called detective work. It doesn’t have mysteries the audience is expected to solve, however it’s solutions are relatively satisfying within the logic of the movie. One sequence in particular, and I don’t say this very often because it’s a dumb, overused cliche, however it does apply, was absolutely jaw-dropping and not because of spectacle or volume or choreography or any of the usual reasons that descriptor is used. It had me floored because of its fidelity, because of an accuracy to a thing that I will not spoil and because it was, as a film lover, the one thing that would have sold me on the Oasis immediately. I want to see it in the real world some day.

ready_player_one_sdcc_04.36

Speaking of loving film, I like to read and watch other people’s reviews of things to keep a perspective and while I am guilty of piling onto a thing if it really deserves it, if it really ruins a good concept or idea (I’m looking in your direction, The Cloverfield Paradox), I do not understand the current Comic Book Guy trend of viciously tearing into a movie that happens to only be adequate or mediocre. The whole purpose of cinema is to be entertaining and if it reaches for that and fails, well, that’s alright. There’s probably something positive to be found in there, far too many people get paid to collaborate and make a film for there to be no quality at all in the end product. But if a picture isn’t genre-changing or epochal it’s immediately called a dumpster-fire and dismissed out of hand and I just don’t understand that mentality, as if the privilege of watching a movie is a job some critics don’t want and wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Ready Player One has a lot of joy in it, which is special in a movie with this much CGI, and it was written by a guy who has a lot of love for pop culture and directed by the guy who created a big chunk of it. This is a weird, meta-creation, it’s kind of a dream-come-true wish fulfillment story that would be a little corny if it hadn’t actually happened for Ernest Cline. Well, it’s a little corny anyway, but it’s got heart, it looks amazing, and it’s a lot of fun but if it doesn’t do anything for you, that’s okay too, just save your hate for the films that deserve it. Like The Emoji Movie.

The Cloverfield Paradox: More Stupid Than Stupid

On Sunday night Netflix dropped a marketing bombshell that only Netflix, in its manic effort to distinguish itself from a growing tide of available streaming services, is capable of dropping: an immediate release of a third film in the peculiar if mostly entertaining Cloverfield series and the result is, well, it’s a movie, alright. The thing that made this particular franchise fascinating, if extraordinarily unwieldy is its willingness to turn genre expectations on their ear. The original Cloverfield was a giant monster movie from the perspective of the people who normally get stomped on, by way of found footage, 10 Cloverfield Lane, was a doomsday survival horror that is mostly great except for a terrifically tone deaf finale that I almost admire for its absolute insanity but also hate for exactly the same reasons. The Cloverfield Paradox fails to follow suit, however, being a desperate sort of mish-mash of other, better films without distinguishing itself from them in any way, shape, or form. The resulting content, with its interdimensional gobbledygook, hokey dialogue, and what I can only describe as non-science, is somewhere between a decent episode of Fringe and a terrible episode of The X-Files. But in space.

Cloverfield-Paradox-Cast

All of this is, of course, a damn shame for such a robust and talented multi-ethnic cast. Daniel Bruhl is a fine actor who has really yet to step out of the shadow of his role in Inglourious Basterds, David Oyelowo takes a slight if significant step down from playing MLK, portraying the commander of the mission (I think), and hey, look, Zhang Zhiyi hasn’t aged a single damn day since she starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon around 18 years ago. Chris O’Dowd shows up to provide some comedic relief being a representative of the scientific community of…. Ireland, which as we all know is right up there alongside the other UN Security Member nations. There is also a Brazilian crew member I do not know who, for every single line of dialogue has at least five instances of quietly staring confusedly at things, much in the same way I stared at my television screen for nigh two hours. But the apparent star of the show is Black Mirror actress and real talent Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing a conflicted scientist who left behind her SO in order to travel to space to do science. As often as the plot refocuses and re-centers around different dangers and mysteries, it’s her story that the audience keeps coming back to and as hard as she is trying, it’s difficult to relate much to her character. As much fun is I’ll have with the cast as a whole, it really is clear that everyone is pulling has hard as they can to make this a tense, exciting thriller but the problems with The Cloverfield Paradox are two fold: the writing and the directing, as neither seems to understand exactly which direction to be pulling in or, fundamentally, why.

For a series of films that have done such an exceptional job at being both more than they appear and near perfect examples of the genres that they are parroting, it’s remarkable how far the third in this franchise strays from what the previous two did so well. The game plan seems pretty clear from the outset: take the ensemble cast, grounded physics, and doomsday scenario of a far superior Sunshine and cross it with the atmosphere and paranoia of the original Alien. Add one inexplicably psychotic Russian scientist and then let it all ride. And while it seems hard to go wrong with this strategy it most certainly and plainly does, starting specifically with a random cameo by the fantastic and criminally underrated Donal Logue, who pipes in with a short monologue that is somehow supposed to explain away all the nonsensical plot twists as well as, I don’t know, the cogent, animated, bloodless, body parts that have important plot-advancing knowledge to share. I hope you felt as stupid reading that sentence as I did writing it, such is the cost of experiencing this particular movie. As much as I object to the method, I’ll admit there is some value as a storytelling device in building mystery upon mystery, like Lost or The Leftovers. I consider it a lazy technique but it undeniably adds suspense and intrigue to the world-building in much the same way dipping pizza in ranch adds flavor and deliciousness but they should, ultimately, both come with a healthy amount of shame and dishonor to one’s family name. However,The Cloverfield Paradox literally opens up that Mystery Box with that one speech and treats it like a blank check to advance its narrative, and I use that word very, very, irresponsibly, without really ever explaining why what’s happening is happening.

GAS53GGG2BG4JH76FF42K6JA7U

You’ll notice I have neither added a spoiler warning nor attempted to couch the plot in any criticisms and there’s a good reason for that: I’m not exactly sure what the movie itself was about. There’s a particle accelerator in space. An energy crisis. And like any good scientists doing science, they really seem to have no idea what the end result of switching that baby on is going to be, which I believe is the secret, hidden fourth step of The Scientific Method, right before ‘cross fingers and hope the thingy doesn’t open an interdimensional rift into Hell‘. In retrospect, I really have to hand it to the Netflix marketing team for knowing exactly how to release this well produced and visually arresting mess of a film during the one period of time that a majority of its American audiences are guaranteed to find its plot contrivances and gaping holes in logic reasonable and somehow entertaining and that is immediately after the Super Bowl when we’re all drunk. It’s experiences like The Cloverfield Paradox, and Bright, and initially, when I finished the atrociously self-indulgent original series The OA, that I realized that Netflix, with their mostly hands-off approach to creators and filmmakers, are pioneering a new era of television where I am actually starting to truly understand the necessity of studio and producer notes. Some of these writers and directors, however talented they might be, really do need to be reigned in at some point, to be told, “HA, that’s great, but, you know, terrible.” The result is essentially those children that go to progressive, non-traditional schools that don’t believe in discipline or grading systems or any structure whatsoever. Sure, little Shiloh might be an exceptional and accomplished painter with a great eye for color but he’s 12 years old and still pulls his pants and underwear all the way down to his ankles to pee. Also, he steals things.

tcpstill00113

My final point is that there is a good movie somewhere buried deep, and I mean deep, inside The Cloverfield Paradox and it’s a shame that it will never see the light of day. Is it worth a watch? Sure. Not sober by any means, but sure. It’s my hope that Netflix, with its war-chest still brimming, will keep making bold decisions like this and continue to refine their product to the point where they don’t feel the need to spam us with mediocre content.  Ultimately, I am glad I sat down with it so that I can no longer think about this franchise or its mysteries again. Also if you’re wondering, yes, there is a sort of twist at the end that implies a continuation of the series and while I’ll not spoil that here, I will describe it paraphrasing the words of the always great and inimitable Lewis Black, “It was like going into use the bathroom and when you pressed flush the water just comes shooting out and hits you in the face. And when you turn to leave there’s a sign on the inside of the door that says, ‘Caution: Water Will Shoot Out And Hit You In the Face.'”

 

The Cloverfield Paradox is now available for streaming on Netflix (*donk donk*). 

 

Darkest Hour: Reasoning With A Tiger

If you’re looking for a thrilling character piece on one of the most influential and controversial leaders of the 20th Century portrayed by one of the most gifted and oft overlooked actors of this generation, Darkest Hour is going to do it for you. It’s a pretty by-the-numbers example of Oscar bait but not at all in a bad way, the performances all around are worth the price of admission but if you happen to be, as I am, a kind of WWII enthusiast that absorbs every thing from historical record to anecdotal testimony at every chance this film may leave you, as it did me, with an odd sense of disappointment in its finale. Not that it wasn’t powerful and well earned, but within the context of the rest of history it struck an odd note that wasn’t perhaps off-key as much as…a little bit too Hollywood for how grave the situation would continue to be for years after. But I’ll get into that later, first the good bits.

I was initially very skeptical of the prosthetics that went into turning a narrow jawed, sleek Gary Oldman into the famously jowly, overweight British Bulldog but genuine praise needs to go to both the makeup department and of course to the man himself, who disappears so convincingly into the role you forget who you’re watching on-screen. So effective is his performance that an Academy Award almost seems like an afterthought at this point and if I were any other potential nominee I’d already be looking for my next project. In terms of the history of the events portrayed Darkest Hour is admittedly not my favorite depiction of that timeline, there are two original HBO films The Gathering Storm and Into the Storm that provide a better, almost mini-series like approach to the bigger picture, however this new film is hands down the best character depiction of Churchill that’s been made yet, all credit due to Albert Finney and Brendan Gleeson.

It’s a good biopic that illuminates the character and flaws of a great historical figure but it’s a great one that also manages to provide an arc and in this it’s Churchill’s innate detachment from the common man, his inability to relate to the everyday people exemplified by an early offhand comment, “You know, I’ve never ridden a bus before. Ever.” This is a capable bit of foreshadowing of an idea, one that is firmly rooted in the ideals of the very country that they are trying to defend and antithetical to the coming fascist invasion: the concept that the common people’s voices can and should be heard, that nobility is not a quality exclusive to nobility, and that, frankly, in dire times, we’re all in this together.

Darkest Hour is primarily about the divisions and bureaucracy that continue to take place even as the world is burning down to its foundations. It’s simultaneously depressing and inspiring in the way it portrays not necessarily cowards as much as journeymen in history, men who served a function to other greater figures. Churchill was, by all means and measures and his own estimation, a failure up until his election to Prime Minister in the most troubling time for Western Europe in the last, or really any century. He was also a power alcoholic and an extremely divisive figure, only elected, as the film would portray, as a sandbagging tactic by his own party in an attempt make capitulation a more appealing option in the face of Nazi aggression and in this his foes failed miserably. Because in those trying times, when a demagogue had seized control of a world power, England elected an orator, a man who weaponized words in a way that didn’t inspire fear or resentment or hatred, rather, his words were eloquence. He wrote and spoke in a way that evoked a different feeling in his people, a way separate from the atavistic badgering of a madman stoking the worst instincts of a frustrated people. Instead of appealing to weakness, he suggested courage. He inspired dignity. He expressed hope. In his “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” address, he didn’t ask those things of the people, he offered them from himself.

My problem with the finale of Darkest Hour is that it is a triumphant shouting of Churchills famous “We Shall Fight On the Beaches” speech to a newly energized and supportive Parliament. It’s a rabble-rousing, shake-the-rafters moment where the English people decide to reject potential subjugation by the Nazi regime and Gary Oldman’s Winston struts off gallantly, cue the ending cards, roll credits. But. This didn’t sit right for me. It’s possible that my recent rewatch of Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk skewed my opinion but, to me, the elegant, subdued recitation of the same speech by a young soldier fresh from surviving hell on earth was exponentially more affecting in its framing. This speech was not a football coach reinvigorating his team at half time or a dramatic charge into the breech, dear friend. This was about resolve. It was about hold fast. It was about this far, no further. And the celebratory nature of the ending, while cinematically necessary to a casual audience, rings a few too many major chords, incongruous with the long, difficult, uncertain path ahead.

Darkest Hour is a fine film and I’ll admit to splitting some hairs with regard to tone but that issue I have with the ending is a recurring one, a shouting of things as opposed to a delivery and this is fine. We’re talking, again, about an actor who can make an entire scene with one single word (EVERYONE!) so see it for the performance alone but if an HBO GO profile is available, I’d look into those other depictions as well because while Winston Churchill’s leadership and character were polarizing and much debated, he was in nearly every interpretation absolutely as fascinating as advertised.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – A Space Oddity

Oh, what a time we live in. When I was a sprat the news that George Lucas was going to revisit the Star Wars franchise blew everyone’s minds. We were so ecstatic and grateful to get another look at that universe that it took weeks, almost months to realize how awful they were. Such is the effect of spectacle, which is the man’s real gift: the ability to make a thing that causes an audience to go “ooh” but then the feeling passes. And when the prequels came out it was mostly people like me with far too much disposable time on their hands who kept talking about the films after everyone else had gone on with their lives and significant others or whatever, instead we dissected and complained ad nauseam amongst ourselves. And 20 years later, in the no-longer-nascent era of the Internet, a film’s quality can be debated and debunked within seconds of walking out of a theater. Enter Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest entry into the series, that has polarized the fanbase almost instantaneously and in a way that brings a kind of evil smile to my face for a couple of reasons. For one, I am a Star Trek guy at heart, I have nothing against the Wars, they just never appealed to me the way the science and imagination of Gene Roddenberry’s creation does. And I’ve been watching his vision being steadily disassembled and destroyed for years now, ever since JJ “I never watched Star Trek growing up because it was too cerebral for me” Abrams got his big stupid hands on the franchise. So watching something I love die is an experience I’m familiar with and the fact that a lot of die hard fans of Lucas’ universe seemed to be experiencing that same sense of alienation from the The Last Jedi, well, amuses me. If that’s a little dark, well, shrug, at least Luke didn’t show up riding a fucking dirt bike for no particular reason.

Screen-Shot-2017-07-25-at-15.38.02-920x583

Anyway, it also makes me smile because the die hard fans, while not wrong in the sense that writer-director Rian Johnson disregarded every fan theory they had going into Episode 8, had such a level of entitlement and expectation that there was no way they wouldn’t be disappointed. It was an odd choice to go from Abrams and The Force Awakens with its reliance on what he refers to as a Mystery Box approach, i.e. the method of only telling one half of the story as a technique to get your audience invested, to a Rian Johnson, who is a gifted storyteller in an entirely different way, in that he actually tells a complete story and this presents a massive departure in style and approach. If the first works better for you, the open ended questions in The Force Awakens were probably enthralling and you had some expectation of resolution which is, sorry to say, entirely your fault. You probably also expected Lost to actually be going somewhere after six seasons but if you didn’t figure out after they got that hatch open that they were going to keep fucking with you to no end, you deserve what you got. My point is, The Force Awakens, regardless of your feelings about Rey or Snoke or Han Solo’s fate, is purely a fan-service movie.

I don’t believe you’re wrong if you enjoy it anyway, that’s what movies are for, so go nuts, but the fact that it is a paean to the Original Trilogy with a plot that is 100 percent recycled from A New Hope is beyond debate at this point. And if you went into The Last Jedi expecting the same tropes, some reveal about Rey’s parentage being somehow tied into the Skywalker clan, or Snoke being some kind of mutant holdover from an earlier trilogy, or really any of the same catering to the wants and needs of the Memberberries generation, I entirely understand your disappointment. Rian Johnson, much like Luke at the beginning of this movie with his lightsaber, hucked those fan theories and the desperate affection for nostalgia over his shoulder and made a movie that is admittedly incongruous with the rest of the Star Wars canon, which I am entirely cool with.

Now, I’m going to say some nice things about The Last Jedi because I unapologetically enjoyed it but I’ll also be the first to admit that it’s far from a perfect film. It somehow managed to feel both really long and really short at the same time. A lot happens in what is really only a few hours of time within the film’s context. Some of the subplots both felt and were entirely pointless except to pad the running time or to make an entirely unnecessary social/political statement. And most importantly, the two most important characters in the saga, Luke and Leia, felt badly mishandled. The former fell short of what should have been a by-the-numbers bad ass moment and the latter had the perfect opportunity to exit the story in a powerful sequence that was, inexplicably, immediately undone for no clear reason. These felt like tremendous missteps and are just a few of some issues that can be raised in all fairness.

Mark-Hamill-as-Luke-and-Daisy-Ridley-as-Rey-in-Star-Wars-The-Last-Jedi

But those things aside where the film excelled, to me, was developing it’s new characters. Poe Dameron is by far the strongest of the bunch and doesn’t feel like the two dimensional dashing fighter pilot who only fighter pilots and dashes. Instead, he has something that Abrams will have to Google: an arc. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo was genuinely compelling and added some much needed depth to both of their motivations. Both are struggling to figure out a sense of identity and purpose. Both have been, in different ways, misled and deceived by parental figures and both will have to move out from under those shadows in the next installment. Although I’m sure the reveal about Rey’s parentage probably infuriated a lot of people, I found it to be deeply satisfying and even, to a degree, antithetical to the whole idiotic Midichlorian explanation from the prequels. This concept that the Force can come from anywhere and anyone, that anyone can be a part of this great power that surrounds everything is a lovely concept and reminded me of what was so special about the very first Star Wars. That before the big twist in Empire Strikes Back, even a poor, lowly farmhand from some backwater desert planet can stand up against an evil empire and make a difference.

This is why I believe the movie succeeds and I found it inspiring in that way, with it’s recurring themes of hope and a final sequence that sent chills down my spine. While it definitely has plot holes and unanswered question throughout, so did the Original Trilogy. So do the prequels. So does The Force Awakens. Random Twitter user: “ the closing minutes of Rogue One with Vader in the hallway is a million times better than this entire movie.” This guy right here makes my point. A lot of fans, in a lot a ways justifiably, really just want to see their favorite toys smashing up against each other on screen. And that’s cool. I understand you didn’t get that this weekend. Instead, we got a movie by a different auteur director, a movie about hope and identity, about new characters taking over an old franchise and while I’ll never blaspheme to the point of comparing it to Empire Strikes Back, a lot of people didn’t like that one when it came out either. You know what we loved right awayThe Phantom Menace. I’d be willing to bet with a little time and perspective some of this vitriol is going to die down and it can be appreciated sincerely for what it does right and if it doesn’t, well, at least JJ is coming back to save/recycle the day for the die-hards.

star-wars-portfolio-06-2017-ss14

Thor: Ragnarok- ‘Tis a Silly Place

The fascinating thing about Marvel, and the true key to their continued success as a studio, is their willingness and capacity to make adjustments, to continue to adapt through each phase of their Cinematic Universe to improve their films. It’s a remarkable ability in this industry, one that has been ruled front to back by marketing research and executive influence, an industry that so often tries to tell audiences what they want rather than sit back and listen to the angry nerd-mob. However, Marvel does listen. After making directorial choices that steadily improved in quality from the first to second phases, they encountered a new problem with their intricately interconnected Universe: homogenization. Safe, cooperative directors who would not rock the boat and stay within the motifs and established rhythms became the norm, best exemplified by the departure of auteur talent Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver from the mostly pretty good and surprisingly charming Ant-Man. While that movie was more fun than it should have been it was also more than a little shy of great and we’ll never know how weird it could have been. But the result of that aforementioned ability to adjust, in the face of a potentially squandered opportunity to bring real, unique vision to their storytelling and flagging enthusiasm towards the superhero genre and Marvel in general, brings us to Thor: Ragnarok, whose Freak Flag is flying from frame one.

oz7zbvvqwmimvlglm7ud

The odd thing about the Thor storylines in the MCU is that, logically speaking, they should be the most austere, even classical aspect of the comic book adaptations being technically based on Norse mythology, and while the first in the series absolutely is, with its Shakespearean struggle for a throne between two brothers, one selfish and entitled, the other deceptive and envious, Ragnarok lands so far on the other side of the spectrum that it’s difficult to consolidate all three films. This makes sense considering newcomer and relatively obscure New Zealand indie director Taika Waititi openly decided to ignore the previous films altogether and the Marvel Universe in general in order to focus on making his own movie as awesome as possible. And the result of Marvel letting Waititi completely off the chain is one of the goofiest, most self-aware, and ultimately spectacular entries to date. It’s pure joy from start to finish, it’s so adorable you want to climb up the screen and hug it, and, to recycle an exhausted but appropriate trope, it’s the reason we go to the movies.

null

To say that the entire cast is hitting on all cylinders is also a bit of a trope but it applies. If I had to lodge a serious complaint about this movie, and the genre as a whole, it’s that the whole green screen approach to making movies genuinely robs the entire experience of a degree of fidelity but, in a film like Ragnarok, the fact that everyone is clearly having so much fun with the material it doesn’t really matter. This is one of those movies that you don’t want to end and, at no point, is there a dull interval or moment wasted. Cate Blanchett as Hela (pronounced like a Northern Californian, as in, “This movie is hella good”) is an absolute joy, Karl Urban is an unexpected but thoroughly enjoyable side-arc, and Jeff Goldblum is distilled down to the purist, weirdest, most Jeff Goldblum-y version of Jeff Goldblum that has ever been committed to celluloid. Ever. At one point, he’s just making facial expressions and, somehow, because it’s him, it just works. Taika Waititi himself is also a great addition in the form of a giant rock alien with a clipped, New Zealand accent who manages to steal every minute he’s onscreen.

So immediately after the screening I texted a friend who was seeing Thor: Ragnarok later in the week and asked them to buy a ticket on my behalf so I could see it again. There are so many quirky exchanges and subtle digs at the rest of the Marvel canon, so many callbacks and wacky deliveries, so much fun being had at the expense of the source material while also managing to be an excellent fantasy action movie that I wanted to rewatch thing immediately. And there’s another thing about Ragnarok and the trailer and Marvel as a whole, lately: they know exactly what they are doing and if you watched the trailer like I did and assumed the film is going to end a certain way, you are wrong. But you’re just going to have to see it to find out what that head-fake was.

thor-ragnarok-1_marvel

Ever since the second Thor film I’ve been reminded incessantly of Heavy Metal magazine. For those not familiar, this magazine was a sort of uber-nerd periodical that featured contributor’s art and stories mainly made up of dragons, boobs, spaceships, elves, scantily clad women with boobs, warriors, aliens, monsters, monsters with boobs, pretty much everything that creepy kid in high school who sat in the back of the class drew on his folders. It was popular in the 70s and 80s and there was even a terrible R-rated animated film that was made at a certain point before American animation had really evolved or caught up with Japanese anime in terms of quality. Anyway, Thor: The Dark World could have jumped right off the pages of Heavy Metal with its Norse Gods battling evil space elves with fighter jets and laser guns. Ragnarok takes that strangeness and geekiness and imagination and doubles down, with action set pieces that tap directly into the part of the viewers brain that goes, “…fuckin’ sweet.”. And above all of that, it also manages to be hilarious. It’s easily the funniest Marvel offering so far and somehow, vaults itself into the top five MCU films of all time, with room to spare. So far, anyway, as much as they continue to impress after 17 films Marvel’s gotta run out of steam at some point. Right?

Maybe not any time, soon. 

thor-ragnarok-hulk-1-600x316

Gerald’s Game: To Have And To Hold

Gerald’s Game is a novel, like many of Stephen King’s work, that I read when I was far too young for the source material. As far as I could tell it was about sex stuff but not the fun, interesting type. The weird, scary kind that I had no comprehension of (still kind of don’t, I mean handcuffs? Where does that get fun…), so the story drifted off into the nether regions of my memory and I haven’t thought about it much, if at all. When a trailer popped up for it a few weeks ago, I dusted off what recollections I had and tried to remember if it was worth checking out and although surveys said, “Nah“, the strength of the casting alone sold me on checking out at least a few minutes of the film. Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are two of my favorite actors that are somehow both incredibly talented and relatively unknown, but they get work regularly on a variety of different projects, so I don’t complain, their presences are usually a barometer of quality. And while I typically do not like scary movies at all, particularly the gory, slasher type, I have a great love for psychological horror. Films like The Descent or Jacob’s Ladder where the monsters on the outside may or may not be worse than the ones in the character’s heads. This is where that ten minute experiment with Gerald’s Game grabbed me by the metaphorical throat and held me hostage for the next two hours (HA! Because it’s a movie…about being trapped in a…. ahem….analogy…..). I’d forgotten one of Stephen King’s most underrated and underappreciated gifts as a storyteller in the afterglow (or not) of his big epic adventures like The Gunslinger or It and it’s subsequent grown-up sequel coming in 2019 and it’s that he’s a fucking master of tense, low-key, surreal narrative. It’s that hearing his characters talk and think and imagine and recall are all something he can do while making the reader or viewer feel like they are a part of the experience, it’s as if he knows these characters before he knows the story and that we are all, including King, along for the ride. Director, co-writer, and editor Mike Flanagan is fully aware of this and does a spectacular job, possibly the best since The Shawshank Redemption/The Green Mile combo by Frank Darabont, of bringing King’s novel off of the page and onto the screen with such naturalism you’d forget which came first.

bed

Back to Gugino and Greenwood, without going beyond that first 10 minutes of film time or spoiling the situation as it unfolds from there, these two actors could not be more in their element, playing off each other with such a pitch perfect blend of tenderness and spite that it’s hard to believe they haven’t been working together for years. So affecting are the performances, and aside from a few practical impediments, a majority of this film could take place as a stage production. Writing like this, that is mostly dialogue and internal monologue (kind of), sinks or swims on the performances, this could easily have turned into a weak imitation of the Saw franchise and become a direct to DVD bore-fest, instead of the absolute clinic in character development and arc that it is. They are helped by the fact that veteran horror director Mike Flanagan knows exactly what the hell he is doing. Instead of trying to weird out or shock the audience with awkward angles or rapid cuts or the bane of my existence and sign of a cheap, lowdown, good-for-nothing hack, jump scares, he lets the actors create and build the tension. He lets the scene do the work, where the fear and horror comes from what might happen or what’s just out of view, rather than slapping the audience in the face with a loud noise or a piece of gore. If ever there was a genre that benefits greatly from effective suspension of disbelief, it’s this one and a director who knows how to keep stylistic flourishes or winks at the audience out of the picture is a smart one.

Geralds-Game-trailer-700x300

Gerald’s Game, when not being a study in the simple, claustrophobic fear of being trapped alone in the dark, goes into some pretty dark subject matter in an intelligent, thoughtful way and King deserves more credit for depth than he’s usually given. For a good long while during his heyday, the writer was regularly mocked by so-called or self-described “serious” literary establishments for being a populist, no-talent shill, with no redeeming qualities or significance to speak of, and it’s not hard to understand why. But for all the books about cars coming to life and killing people or tractor-trailers coming to life and killing people or vending machines coming to life and killing people, there’s are some truly moving, exceptional stories that come out of the man’s head. Stand By Me, based on the novella The Body, is one of the finest coming-of-age stories of this generation, The Shawshank Redemption is basically a perfect film but the short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is just as magical and moving as the adaptation (a bit shorter, of course). And Misery is without a doubt one of the most terrifying, engrossing stories you’ll ever read and the thing that these all have in common, including Gerald’s Game, is how grounded they are in reality. When King sets down the supernatural element and focuses on the human one, he shows exactly how good he can be. The themes in this film, in anyone else’s hands, could have been an exercise in what horror and most mainstream film get wrong so often: objectifying and disempowering women with violence, sexual or otherwise. Instead, it does what great horror stories can do so well: humanize, redeem, and ultimately empower a victim. All credit to Mike Flanagan and company for understanding and realizing it so well, this is an adaptation that should not be missed, but a real tip of the hat also goes to the man himself for subverting the genre before it was cool. Long live the King.

geralds-game-trailer-netflix