Westworld, Season 2: My First Thought, He Lied In Every Word

There’s a reason films like Fight Club and The Usual Suspects don’t have sequels or that the second season of a show like Mr. Robot never quite recreated the verve or energy of the first: once a show plays that one card, the Unreliable Narrator, it no longer holds a viewer’s attention in quite the same way. It’s a classic fool me once, shame on you, fool me…. you can’t get fooled again, is what I’m saying. Such is the problem with season two of Westworld, a show that I adored enough to renew my HBO Now subscription for but barely made it through to the end. This problem was apparent even in the first season but because of it’s perfectly constructed denouement it was easy enough to forgive. While that season was confusing, it had an endgame in mind and Dolores was the linchpin of the whole thing (even if the whole “Wyatt” misdirection felt a little bit forced and unnecessary). This year, however, any good will that may have been generated is spent. To wit, it’s difficult to get invested in a show that may be openly and consistently lying to your face in every scene. No dark corner or dramatic twist has any suspense or gravity to it when any turn might easily, and sometimes within minutes, be completely undone.

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This is not to suggest that there is any decline in quality in Westworld, if anything it’s even more challenging, even more bold, and jaw-droppingly beautiful, and these are all good things. It’s a once-in-a-generation kind of show that is this willing to hold their audience to a high standard, to expect them to keep up with multiple overlapping timelines, philosophical musings on the nature of reality, the concept of identity and self, determinism versus free will, it’s all a lot to get through on a Sunday evening, while preparing for the work week and I admire Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan for what they have created. But much like the Hosts that have gone rampaging through the park to exact their revenge, their creation has may have escaped them in this new season. Complexity is good but complexity without depth (i.e. real stakes, where characters die and actually stay dead) fails to be what television sets out to be in the first place: entertaining.

In the first season Dolores was experiencing events as they occurred to her over the course of thirty odd years all at the same time, so the past and the future, to her, overlapped and as the viewer we experienced this confusion and eventual comprehension alongside the character and it was a thrilling, compelling experience, unlike anything else on television. But this year, with Dolores now firmly in Kill-Bot mode, Bernard is at the center of our time jumping narrative and we follow his experience in the park in two different time-frames and while at first this is kind of neat it shortly becomes just confusing and, even worse, entirely unnecessary to the narrative. And this is where that lack of trust in the narration kicks in. Without trust, there is no investment, and without an investment, as the viewer, I found my attention drifting about 80 percent of the time.

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To be clear, again, this is in no way bad television and the twists and turns definitely kept people tuned in every week for good reason but if I can, again, fault the season and probably HBO in general, because this is something they do that has rapidly become a trope, and that’s back-load the season to such a degree that it’s no longer a necessity to follow a show week to week. There is so much in the finale “Passenger” to unpack that even the online discussions on places like A.V. Club or Screenrant become so impenetrable that I have yet to finish a single one on just that episode. There’s no conceivable reason why any of the four or five revelations that occur in the finale could not have been metered out through the rest of the episodes and there needn’t be this orgiastic riot of action and violence and M. Night moments shunted into the final 90 minutes of a 12 hour film. Except, perhaps, to create a groundswell in it’s audience, to get everybody talking about what’s going to happen next, which is most likely the motivation and reason behind Bernard’s disjointed narrative. HBO has gotten very good at making must-watch, event television, even if it comes at the expense of logical plot development and resolution.

So 80 percent of this season I was partially checked out, despite my best efforts but I use that specific number for a reason. Of the ten episodes this season, two of them, and really only the two, were absolutely riveting, brilliant television that demonstrates the power of this fully armed and operational battle-station. “The Riddle of the Sphinx” could live in the same world and exist alongside the best episodes of Black Mirror, it’s a fantastic blend of science fiction and horror that finally reveals the darker possibilities that the park represents while also letting one of my all-time favorite character actors, Peter Mullen, completely off the chain.

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The other episode, and potentially the best episode of the entire series at this point, is “Kiksuya” which centers on what has been up until this point barely a tertiary character and shows in 59 minutes of television how much raw potential and talent Westworld, as a subject and a Universe, has to offer. How they created, to me, one of the most compelling story arcs thus far in such a short amount of time, to the point that I was openly weeping all over my dog’s head by episode’s end, I’ll never know, but it reminded me how much this world has to offer and how good it can be when the narrative isn’t trying so hard to impress.

Final thoughts on this season. Fundamentally, it became difficult to know who we were supposed to be rooting for as an audience. Maybe that was an intentional effort by the showrunners and while moral ambiguity can be an interesting subject to explore, there still needs to be a clear protagonist. Dolores, while bad-ass as all get out, kind of lost me with the torture and murder of the park guests. Sure, some of them may have been monsters like the Man in Black, but… all of them? Probably not. And Maeve is easy to root for but at a certain point she sort of became Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation where, for every obstacle, she just so happens to develop a new skill, kind of like a Deus ex Machina. No irony intended, there. And Bernard. If I were to create a Westworld drinking game where I had to drink every time he made a confused face I would be throwing up on my dog by the time the credits rolled on the first episode.

So somehow, the finale “Passenger” felt a lot like the ending of a Christopher Nolan film, with it’s voice-over and montage of images and music and inferred futures for the surviving characters and despite all my complaints it was successful in achieving what it set out to do. However, it also felt like a series finale, as opposed to a season ending. Where last year I was on the edge of my seat, hungry and curious for more, I don’t know what to expect in a third season. I don’t know what I want from a third. Except obviously more Akecheta.

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Solo: I Have An Adequate Feeling About This

Does the Star Wars Universe have some rule against things being aerodynamic or obeying the laws of Newtonian physics? I’m not complaining per se but it begs the question, what exactly does Lucas Ltd. and their art designers have against symmetry. This ungainliness also happens to apply to Solo: A Star Wars Story throughout that, while visually arresting and entertaining, doesn’t quite know what tone it’s trying to strike. It’s persistently self aware to its own detriment falling closer on the side of the cacophonous fan service that is The Force Awakens than the darker, bolder Last Jedi, to whatever effect that might have on the particular viewer. To put a finer point on it, if you preferred the former you’ll have a fine time with Solo but if the latter is more your cup of tea, you may find the attempts at depth or a darker tone to be superficial and without fidelity.

The only real description of Alden Ehrenreich and his portrayal of a young Han Solo is that he’s perfectly acceptable. No more, no less. I actually somewhat respect his choice to make no attempt at impersonation, outside of a few gestures or mannerisms, it avoids the danger of becoming parody. So in this I have no complaints but in reality it’s the big guns like Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany that elevate the whole experience. And Emilia Clarke finally gets a real role with some substance outside of the Game of Thrones Universe, she’s a real joy to watch in a film that occasionally tries to be darker and drearier than it ought to. And as expected, Donald Glover delivers but I object to calls for a Lando spin-off movie. That character works precisely because of how little we know about him, it’s the mystery that makes him so charming and appealing and having already insisted on pulling back the veil on Han, I hope desperately that they leave just one stone unturned.

As for the story itself, well. It’s lazy screenwriting to just assume the audience is going to care for its protagonist without giving a reason. Out of context Han is introduced as a generic guy with pluck and a pretty girlfriend but in an entire 145 minute film there’s little to no explanation of who he is. Or why. Did he lose his parents to gangsters? Did his parents let him down or inspire him? Was he bullied as a child? No clue, which is a pretty big misstep in a film that’s billed as an origin story. Further than that Solo suffers from the same problem that admittedly Last Jedi had in that the film climaxes too many times. The third act is lousy with action beats and twists and betrayals with a clear attempt to set the stage for a sequel which unfortunately leaves this whole thing feeling both overly long and incomplete. Not to mention the biggest what-the-fuck cameo moment that is so random and unnecessary I’m starting to think that a real contempt for the audience might be starting to show.

That might sound like nerd-rage rearing it’s ugly, neck-bearded head but for the record I am not a die hard Star Wars fan by any stretch. I have great affection for the series and wore out several VHS copies of the original trilogy as a kid but it’s never been my jam, not really. I’ve never owned a t-shirt or anything, is what I’m saying. But that cameo I’m referring to, well, frankly, it makes no fucking sense and required a few minutes of quiet reflection to confirm that I hadn’t, in fact, lost it. I’ll let others debate the finer points, I just felt that without further details there was an insistence from the higher ups to create some kind of “wow” moment, you know, for the kids to talk about but instead they landed more of a “….wait, what?”

So what’s the verdict? Well, I’ll put it this way. I did not pay to see Solo: A Star Wars Story and that’s my favorite part of the whole experience. I’d say it is worth seeing if you’re a completionist and just have to see how Han wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando, in that case go nuts. But I wanted to see Last Jedi again after walking out of the theater. Same with Rogue One, even. I may throw on Solo in the background someday while I’m cooking. If it ever pops up on a streaming service. That I already subscribe to. Maybe.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Dunkirk: The Blood-Dimmed Tide

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That it's taken me almost a full week to process my reaction to Dunkirk should say a lot about the effect of the film. I'll usually watch a movie like this twice, once for the experience, a second time for the craft but my first thoughts after exiting the theater was that it was going to be a long time before I am prepared for that repeat viewing. No, I went in thinking this was going to be another war flick, another Nolan vehicle with some clever structure or idea that would engage my brain but about a third of the way into the story a thought surfaced like an enemy submarine in my mind: I am not prepared for this. And then it got worse. This is not to say it's bad or torturous, just that it's the most mature, relentless, grueling film that Chris Nolan has made so far, it fully establishes him as one of the preeminent writer/directors working today and if it doesn't snag him his Oscar in one of the two big categories I'm burning the whole building down to the ground.

Part of the reason I wasn't prepared for Dunkirk is that it's been a long time since I went to the theater to see an actual film film, as opposed to a Marvel movie or a popcorn summer comedy blah blah blah. I watch the heavier stuff at home where I can pause and control the pace or take a minute to distance myself from the ending of, let's say, Okja, that had me blubbering like a small child whose balloon had floated away. Instead, Nolan takes one of his greatest skills, building and compounding tension until it reaches some breathless, seemingly unending stress test, that he normally reserves for the second or third act of his movies and just does that from frame one of Dunkirk. The entire movie is an escalation of suspense that is a little difficult to watch at times as the existential nightmare relentlessly closes in on these laconic, defeated soldiers waiting on the beaches of France. Stylistically, this is going to be called a minimalist masterpiece in visual storytelling, deservedly so, but the real literal unseen champion of the film is also in the sound design which is fucking terrifying.

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The other thing that left me unprepared was my familiarity with both the history of the event and with war films in general. How much suspense could a movie create if you already know how it's going to end? A lot, it turns out. Particularly if there is no grand or epic score from James Horner or John Williams to tell you what to feel and when. Dunkirk is unique in that sense, it hits none of the normal beats that a war movie will do. No one is in charge, not really. There's no funny guy, or tough guy, or a hero type. To be completely honest, there really is very little actual combat that takes place outside of the aerial dogfights and nary a word of exposition or personal history from any of the principle characters. We never actually see the German army, which I found incredibly refreshing, too many WWII films turn into Nazi fetishism. Instead, the audience is left with the grim realities of the world coming apart at the seams. Something I like to keep in mind whenever I start a new book or a show on the subject, is that we view the second World War from the perspective of the victors. But, at the time, success, and as in Dunkirk, even survival, was far from certain. Before the events of The Miracle of Dunkirk, as Nolan points out, it was truly the darkest hour of Western Civilization to this point in history. If a killing blow had been struck, as it almost certainly was about to be, England and the rest of the United Kingdom have no standing army to defend against invasion. If England falls there is no need for legitimate defenses on the Western Front and Nazi Germany turns the full brunt of its forces on Russia and, instead of being stopped within sight of Moscow's towers, rolls on through, potentially knocking their last remaining foe out of the fight, thus completely securing Fortress Europa. This is assuming the North African campaign takes on a lower priority since the oil fields needed by the Reich would be supplemented by the Caucuses regions in….

Anyway. After a few days I changed my mind, I will be seeing Dunkirk again in the near future, specifically, in the theater because that's what the movie is designed for. Nolan is a film purist, a snob in the right kind of way who is keeping the actual medium (as opposed to digital) alive, and who rails against Netflix's distribution model or lack thereof. His theater is a sacred place and this is perfectly true of his latest. It feels important and it was difficult trying to start a review of a movie that just needs to be experienced, because that's what it was, an experience. Afterwards, I felt like I'd been through some shit, as opposed to having just sat in a comfortable chair eating a soft baked pretzel with a beer. The best description and compliment I can give Dunkirk is that after a good movie, I can talk about it freely, I like selling people on something that deserves to be seen. A really good movie will make me think and I'll compose some pretentious think piece on the themes and concepts explored. But this film left me speechless. I was sobbing a little with all kinds of emotions while I tried to remember where I parked my car and I made it about five minutes up the road before I broke down into an ugly cry. And what followed was that remarkable release of emotions, of, again, that tension, and it was as cathartic of a feeling as I've had at the theater in a long time. After years of being coddled and tickled by summer blockbuster fare and tentpole franchises, it feels good to be reminded what cinema and Christopher Nolan are capable of. Is this my favorite film of his? No. I probably won't throw it on in the background while I fold laundry or nurse a hangover some day. Is this his best film so far? Almost certainly, and that's saying quite a bit. Just. Be prepared.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming- Feels Like Summer

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This is going to be a less popular opinion than most and I usually don’t like taking a superior position to mainstream reviews but Spider-Man: Homecoming, in its perfectly safe, Marvel-approved, inoffensive, and un-challenging little package, feels much closer to a big budget special series of Agents of SHIELD than an actual addition to the Cinematic Universe. In fact, Spidey feels completely relegated to the JV squad throughout and, for an OG fan from back in the day, this is enormously disappointing. There are major issues with both of the previous film incarnations but one thing that they both did very well, that I now realize was taken for granted, is depict that sense of independence, ingenuity, and self-reliance Peter Parker has always had in the face of adversity and in Homecoming all those things are removed. Instead, this is once again Tony Stark’s world and we’re all just living in it and for Spider-Man to practically require permission and approval from Iron Man to be a superhero on a constant basis was massively frustrating. That aside, Tom Holland is more than capable and a real joy to watch and I get they are trying to reboot the character from scratch but this literal Marvel fanboy, this bumbling, insecure goof, this ain’t my Spider-Man.

Holy Blogpost McBloggington is this movie meta. Like. So meta. There are shots at all kinds of things from the previous Spider-Man movies to the unusual new hotness of Aunt May to Ferris Bueller (?!) to Donald Glover being…. weird Donald Glover. It’s self-aware to the point that I was starting to worry the post-credits sequence would just be a camera view from inside the theater just behind our heads. But this also allows the filmmakers and all six of the credited screenwriters to really have fun with the material which translates really well to the audience Marvel is aiming for: the casual summer blockbuster crowd. More devoted fans of the franchise (i.e. nerds and geeks and me) are going to call out Homecoming for being a big glowing pastiche of what has worked 17 or so times before, minus the stakes. To reference it again, the unfairly maligned Agents of SHIELD has plotlines that easily outmatch this film in terms of scale and scope and the final battle that takes place could have easily been lifted from the small screen. To put a finer point on it, nothing that happens in Spider-Man: Homecoming was an experience unique to the character in particular. To put an even finer point on it, any of the B-List heroes in the Marvel oeuvre could have substituted for Spider-Man at any point in this story and it wouldn’t have mattered. In fact, his actual powers, when not absent entirely, are occasionally inadequate or mocked throughout the movie which brings me to another complaint.

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At some point RDJ is going to bow out of the role and although I will certainly miss the actor’s undeniable charm and wit, my goodness, is Iron Man becoming the deus ex machina of the MCU. He really has turned into the Marvel equivalent of Superman crossed with a Swiss Army Knife where the question becomes, “Why bother have any other superheros show up, Tony Stark probably has an Iron Man suit that can handle it.” His suit is now some combination of Inspector Gadget and the original ’66 Batman utility belt which, luckily, has shark-repellent spray equipped because of course it does. When there are no restrictions on a character’s abilities there is no sense of suspense, no tension and Iron Man has become the screenwriter’s foil; it’s a lazy way to resolve any situation and making Peter Parker basically dependent on one of those suits to do everything is tragic beyond description. Okay, maybe not that bad, but this, again, ain’t my Spider-Man. This also presents the opportunity to make the same AI jokes all over again with a female version of JARVIS, this time voiced by Jennifer Connelly who is, in real life, married to Paul Bettany who voiced the actual JARVIS and is now Vision because META.

Okay, all kvetching aside, where Spider-Man: Homecoming undeniably succeeds is off the clock. The high school setting, this time around with convincing teenage actors as opposed to 30 year old men wearing backpacks, is as much fun as you’re going to have at the theater this summer. The whole cast is a joy, even the bully Flash Thompson, now Guatemalan instead of white and Thor-like, is kind of funny while being a jerk to Penis Peter. A particular surprise was one of my primary objections when the film was first being cast and it’s a complaint that got me in a lot of trouble with some female friends on social media. Up until the announcement of her role, I had never heard of nor did I know what was a ‘Zendaya’ and when I looked her up I recoiled in disbelief. I understand that she is a talented performer and actress, that I get, but my first impression was that she looked like someone had taken a Bratz doll and magically brought it to life. This is not a shot at her to be insulting, she’s undeniably beautiful but she’s also, in my mind, unrealistically beautiful. She’s a product of the fashion world, which is a world that I have no place in or love of, and I could not comprehend her existing alongside Peter Parker, who is destined to be a lowly newspaper photographer struggling to make ends meet. Lo the wrath I took on Facebook for objecting to unrealistic beauty standards. However, I will freely admit to judging a book by its cover, unfairly so, because this ‘Zendaya’ has some comedic timing. She was interesting and weird, if in a Disney Channel kind of way, and I look forward to whatever direction they are going with her, even if we have to wait for the sequel to find out what that is going to be. Plus, Michael Keaton is a national treasure. Seriously, just… be in more movies, dude.

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Is Spider-Man: Homecoming the Spider-Man movie we’ve been waiting for? The one we deserve? The redeemer of the franchise and the character? Sure, if you want it to be. I, however, will be waiting on the rest of the movies to find out. Because, as I’ve said before, this is not my Spider-Man but it’s not really supposed to be. The Web-Head I looked up to was closer to the kind of man that I wanted to be like: funny, independent, maybe a little bit lonely but certain of his responsibility. And seeing this nascent version of that man is okay, I forget that it’s not always my turn. Hopefully, the darker, more mature themes that made the Wallcrawler so compelling will find their way back into this version someday, but until then this will do just fine, in fact, it sincerely is an absolute blast from start to finish and is probably the funniest film in the entire canon. That being said, I really hope that Kevin Feige and company stop painting by numbers at some point and let these characters films grow up. The one thing that kept nagging at me from the beginning was the quaint, solitary SONY logo that appears before the opening sequence of the movie. After the scene plays out the MARVEL fanfare begins with it’s massive logo and hero cutaways and a jaunty version of the 80s Spider-Man theme plays, and you realize who is really in charge. These movies can continue to be a lot of fun without saying anything or taking any chances and if that’s what Marvel wants to keep doing, that’s certainly within their now considerable influence and power. But even though they left the man out with only so much as a passing mention, I remember what a certain someone had to say about great power.

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