Tuesday, March 12, 2019

New Release, with Spoiler-Free first section! Captain Marvel (2019)

Spoiler-Free Section. Read Away!

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

A somewhat flawed but enjoyable entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), for those of us who have been enjoying the fantasy action/adventure provided by the Marvel Studios juggernaut franchise.

Since this is the spoiler-free section of my review, I'll stick to only the broad narrative strokes. During the mid-1990s by Earth reckoning and on a distant planet, a young woman known as Vers (pronounced "Veerz," and played by Brie Larson) is completing her training as a rescue force for the local Kree, a humanoid race of aliens who are at war with the shape-shifting Skrulls. Vers is sent with her small platoon to rescue a prominent Kree from the clutches of the Skrulls on a remote planet. The mission goes sideways, and Vers finds soon herself crashed on Earth, followed by several Skrulls. As Vers seeks to complete her now-altered mission, serious questions about her own identity begin to emerge, including several possible connections to the planet on which she now finds herself.

Captain Marvel is the twenty-first film in the MCU, the blockbuster movie juggernaut franchise which shows no signs of slowing down. While it is the first movie released since last spring's immense, cliff-hanging Avengers: Infinity War, this film does not seek to continue that movie's rather shocking ending. Rather, it goes backwards into the MCU timeline roughly 25 years, in order to introduce a new character into the film world's mythos. It's a peculiar tactic, and one that smacks a bit of a reaction to the tremendous success of the wildly successful, girl-powered smash hit Wonder Woman from two years ago. Regardless, Captain Marvel tells its own rather unique tale, and has plenty of fun doing it.

The film has a few clear strengths. One is how the overall story takes a few worthy plot twists unlike any that I'd seen in an MCU flick to this point. One in particular sets it apart from its MCU brethren, imbuing the tale with a certain depth and heart that one might not see coming. I also found the humor to be solid. Tapping into some Guardians of the Galaxy-style comedy, as well as the incomparable skills of Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn, I found myself laughing out loud plenty of times, mostly at quick one-liners or comic situations. The other strength I found was that the movie offered a satisfying, smash-bang ending to the third act - something which I wasn't sure was coming or not. All of these added up to a movie which was satisfying, if not quite among the very best MCU movies.

So what keeps it back? One is that the pace of the narrative is often a tad too brisk. The location-jumping keeps the story moving, to be sure, but it also makes it very difficult to settle in and get much of a sense of place. Related to this is that, due to the structure of the narrative, we only get to know Vers so well. There are some interesting revelations about her and her background, but much of it is given in rapid-fire, five-second flashbacks, leaving us with only a rough grip on who she truly is as a person. There seems to be a lot of potential to have more fun with her, and I hope she gets a follow-up movie to prove it, but in somewhat breaking the mold on the "superhero origin movie," we don't have as complete a sense of the protagonist's entire mental makeup. On top of these elements, there are more than a few unanswered questions (sometimes read "plot holes") raised by the planet-jumping tale. Some of them are small-scale and easily brushed aside, while others are larger ones with greater implications for the MCU as a whole.

Because I'm a bit of an MCU junkie, I'll almost certainly go out and see this movie on the big screen again within the next few weeks, as part of my buildup to the release of Avengers: Endgame in late April. Fans of the MCU will hardly be disappointed by this one, even if, like me, they don't put it among the very best that Marvel has offered. Those who are not fans of the MCU are not likely to be won over by Captain Marvel, but they will probably find at least a bit of entertainment to go with a few pleasant surprises.

For the most part, the presence of a young Nick
Fury is a major asset to the film. It does, however,
raise a few not-so-easy to answer questions.
Spoiler Section - You've Been Warned

A few specific dislikes and likes about the movie:

While I loved seeing a young Nick Fury in action, I simply can't shake off the serious questions that his experiences in Captain Marvel raise. If the man had literally come face-to-face with hostile (and not-so-hostile) aliens, why does Fury act like Thor's arrival in the Norse prince's eponymous 2010 film is the thing that spurs him to action, as chronicled in The Avengers? And if Captain Marvel is only meant to be called in case of "emergency," why the hell didn't Fury hit that pager button when Loki attacked New York in 2012? Or when Ultron tried to drop a meteor on the planet in 2015? If those aren't emergency situations, then what is?! These and other, smaller, questions of continuity irk my brain a little bit, even if they aren't deal breakers.

To build on my earlier thoughts on the lack of solid character development with Carol Danvers, I really wish we had been able to get a few more extended looks into her life as an Air Force pilot before being abducted by Yon-Rogg. I certainly understood what the filmmakers were going for, first giving us glimpses of Danvers's past failures in life, followed later by the moments in which she "got up" from those failures. But I feel as if her story would have been deepened with even one or two longer sequences in which we viewers could sink our teeth, seeing exactly how she conducted herself when confronted with her own failure or even the glass ceiling of male chauvinism and bald-faced misogyny.

On to things that I enjoyed.

I absolutely loved how much fun Nick Fury was in this movie. Thanks to both good comic writing and Jackson's penchant for knowing exactly how to deliver lines, I laughed more at his scenes and dialog than any character in the movie. He wasn't alone, as Brie Larson and the brilliant Ben Mendelsohn add some good laughs as well, but Jackson was solid gold in this picture. It was well past time that he and the Fury character got more screen time in a single picture, having always playing support roles in the past, and Captain Marvel did not fumble the ball here.

This is Goose. Goose provides more than a little humor in 
Captain Marvel, and actually has more than one moment that
winds up being significant to MCU continuity.
The twist with the Skrulls was great. It wasn't a massive, world-changing twist, but it was nice to see a Marvel movie actually go with some slight-of-hand. In fact, this was the best twist since the "Mandarin" twist back in Iron Man 3 (I know some people hated that plot point, but I loved it). The overwhelming majority of MCU movies have laid out the villain very early and set up a very clear "good vs. evil," straight-line confrontation from which the plot doesn't deviate. Captain Marvel goes another direction, and is better for it.

Watching a fully powered-up Captain Marvel wreck shop at the end of the movie was pretty damn fun. If an action movie is going to focus on an immensely powerful character, it had better do some entertaining things involving that character putting on an awesome display of might. Watching Marvel single-handedly take down Kree warships and stare down Ronan the Accuser ranks among some of the more badass moments in the MCU, along with Thor going lightning mode in Ragnarok, The Hulk going berserk in The Avengers, and similar moments that had me thinking, "Oh, hell yeah!"

It looks like the Captain will be a virtual deus ex machina in the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame, and will seemingly be Earth's serious heavy hitter for the foreseeable future, as her powers seem to put her on par with the likes of Thor and other insanely powerful alien beings. We'll see just how they handle her in the future, but I'm on board. 

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Idiot Boxing: F is for Family, season 2 (2017); Brockmire, season 2 (2018); Runaways, season 2 (2018)

No longer the primary bread-winner, Frank has to adopt
some new roles within his family, including taking part in his
daughter's troop meetings. He doesn't take to it very well.
F is for Family, season 2 (2017)

An animated show that improves upon its solid first season and may be on its way to becoming a rather unique entry into the canon of excellent animated U.S. TV shows.

The first 10-episode season of F is for Family introduced us to the Murphy family, who are based on actor and comedian Bill Burr's own Irish-American family during Burr's childhood in 1973. The show focuses mostly on the father, Frank, a hard-working father of three who is thoroughly locked into the narrow perspectives typical of men in that era. To Frank, the concept of the nuclear family, where the man works and the woman stays home to raise the kids, is the only structure. But while Frank has the semblance of this "perfect" situation, he is a man with a hair-trigger temper, often set off by his disappointments in his kids and his own professional shortcomings. The first season actually had a legitimate, well-crafted arc to it, with Frank's already-agitated world getting further up-ended when he first loses his job at the local airport. This is all exacerbated when his wife, Sue, decides to get a job of her own.

Season 2 continues the story line, with Frank now working a reliable but menial job delivering concession sundries around town, while Sue tries to work her way up through a Tupperware-like company dominated by ultra-chauvinistic men. This second season takes the strengths of the first one, hones them a bit further, and goes deeper into the most unique thing about the series - the need for Frank to accept how his family and the world are changing around him. After losing his job at the airport, he's had to swallow his considerable pride and take a job delivering vending machine concessions. As he muddles through this existential crisis, Sue continues to put together a bit of a career in plastic-ware, though the misogyny continues to run thick. All the while, their three kids try to find their way through a gantlet of bullies, academic failure, and society's expectations for women.

I must confess that I had taken a breather from this show after watching the first three episodes, but I really got into it once I returned and finished the second season. It appears that the writers are actually making a very conscious effort to do something that very few animated series do - have the characters actually develop. Over the first 22 episodes, each of the five family members, and even a few of their friends and neighbors, seem to learn a few things. No, none of them comes anywhere close to evolving into a fully "healthy" person (where's the humor in that?), but they lurch or are pushed there in noticeable ways. And for anyone who has a sense of what typical life was like in the U.S. in the early and mid-1970s, you know just how many cultural shifts were happening. Watching the disillusioned and easily-enraged Frank deal with all of this is certainly hilarious, but it also provides some reasonably compelling drama between the laughs.

I'll soon be tuning into the third season, which was released not long ago on Netflix. I hope the show continues down the path laid out so far, as it has developed something of its own place in a landscape awash with animated series which can be uproariously funny but wherein there is little to no continuity or character growth.

The ever-responsible Charles drags the ever-intoxicated Jim
out of another drunken sinkhole. This image is a solid
metaphor for much of their relationship.
Brockmire, season 2 (2018)

A surprisingly strong follow-up season to a show that has impressed me simply by building on what could have been a one-note premise which could have grown very old very quickly.

At the end of the show's initial 8-episode season, the ferociously addicted Jim Brockmire had been offered a broadcasting gig for the minor league Crawdaddy's in New Orleans - a job which he promptly accepted, leaving behind the lowly Frackers of the burnt-out burg of Morristown, Pennsylvania. The second season picks up well into Brockmire's first season with the Crawdaddy's, where he has been doing fine work despite regularly indulging in nearly every vice known to mankind. The only thing that keeps him in any financial security is the management of Charles, the young man who was his assistant in Morristown. Brockmire experiences a bit of a hiccup in his dream of returning to the big leagues again when he is pitted against fellow broadcaster Raj, a handsome young man of Indian descent who, while knowing little about sports, knows exactly how to pander to his audience to raise his popularity and brand.

This season was just as funny as satisfying as the first, as we get a bit more insight into Brockmire's and Charles's backgrounds. We see Jim deal with the death of his father, and Charles have to confront his highly self-involved family. We get the addition of several new supporting characters, as well as heavy doses of the pitch black humor that set the first season apart.

The only reason I would steer anyone away from this show is that Jim Brockmire is a thoroughly depraved individual, and the show doesn't shy away from exhibiting him at his drug- and booze-drenched worst. People who find no humor in addiction will likely find no humor in this show, despite the fact that it is far from any sort of endorsement for substance abuse. For my part, I was glad to learn that the show has been renewed for both a third and fourth season.

The Runaways, plus one. The members of the crew tend to take
turns making poor decisions, which is something one would
expect from a group of teenagers from wealthy families.
Runaways, season 2 (2018)

A Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) TV show that continues the tone and quality of its first season, even if the longer episode run more clearly exposes its weaknesses.

The ten episodes of season two still see the six titular runaways hiding from their parents while they attempt to learn the secrets of Jonah - the man, or creature, that is at the center of nearly all of their horrible crimes. The Runaways make various sorties from their hideout in a buried, secret old mansion just outside of L.A., and they learn more about their own mysterious powers and themselves as people.

The strongest part of the show is the plot. The story behind Jonah and his long relationship with the Runaways' parents is unfolded well, and there are more than a few curious twists to the story. The nature of his own amazing abilities is also compelling enough to carry the season fairly well. There was also one very intriguing connection to the greater MCU raised towards the end of this season's run. In fact, it is by far the question that I most want to know the answer to.

I did find myself tiring of the interpersonal drama, although I do realize that this is a show aimed more at viewers between ages 11 and 18. Beyond that, though, the dialog and scenarios can sometimes feel a bit contrived to achieve more dramatic effect. And there are some plot holes that rear their heads as the story moves along, both within the story's internal logic and in the show's greater place in the MCU.

I'm undecided as to whether I'll tune in for the third season, which is likely to happen. Like nearly every other MCU show, it is decent enough for a dedicated fan of the franchise to enjoy on some level. However, with more shows coming, I sense that I will likely be drawing a line soon. Shows geared towards younger viewers, such as Runaways, the worthy Cloak and Dagger, and maybe the forthcoming Disney+ shows scheduled to come out later in 2019 may be on the chopping block. There are only so many hours in the day, and there is only so much TV I have the time or desire to watch. The Runaways could be a casualty of those realities. 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Idiot Boxing, MCU on Netflix: Daredevil, season 3 (2018); The Punisher, season 2 (2019)

In season 3, we see Matt ditch the red suit for a while and go
back to the original, "blind, black-clad ninja" getup. It's
still one of the coolest alternative superhero costumes.
Daredevil, season 3 (2019)

Another Netflix MCU series that has some clear strengths, but suffers from the same flaws that every Netflix MCU show has shown, to varying degrees.

Last we saw Matt Murdock, he was miraculously found alive in a mysterious location, following his apparent death at the end of The Defenders series. There, he had fought against and with his lady-love, psychotic ninja assassin Elektra Natchios, until they were seemingly buried under tons of rubble.

But Murdock was dragged free. He was taken to his neighborhood Catholic church and nursed back to health, but he has now lost his purpose in life, both as a criminal defense lawyer and as a vigilante neighborhood protector. Not only that, but his supernaturally-heightened senses seem to be horribly dulled. As he works his way through his lack of powers and personal focus, Wilson "The Kingpin" Fisk uses nefarious machinations and intimidation to secure his release from prison. He then launches an all-out assault on the reputations of the people who put him in prison in the first place - Matt Murdock, Karen Paige, and Foggy Nelson. One of Fisk's key chess pieces is Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter, a homicidal FBI special forces operative with supernatural hand-eye coordination. His skills make him lethal with any sort of projectile weapon or firearm. The psychologically fragile Poindexter is cunningly recruited by Fisk to masquerade as Daredevil, sullying the name of Murdock's alter ego as he slaughters anyone whom Fisk sees as a threat.

The broad strokes of this season were pretty good, and the connection between Fisk and Poindexter was an interesting one. Probably the most entertaining aspect of the season was how Poindexter was handled in the action scenes. His character, known as "Bullseye" in the source comic books, was always a fascinating counter-point villain to Daredevil. Although not possessed of classic "super powers," his heightened abilities to aim and kill with any object made for interesting parallels with Murdock's abilities. And the writers of this season put together a feasible backstory for Poindexter, making him compelling and terrifying in appropriate balance.

The other solid story component was the tale of compromised FBI agent Ray Nadeem, whose internal struggle as to how to cross the tightrope along which he walks gives the overall narrative a decent grounding at times. Although this story element isn't as consistently compelling as it probably could have been, it was an original enough addition to the Daredevil TV mythology to feel somewhat fresh.

Unfortunately, I found most of the other elements of the season to be rather mediocre. The most obvious is the still-tepid handling of Daredevil's primary nemesis, The Kingpin. The writers have, from the first season of the show back in 2015, seemed hell-bent on digging deep into the psyche of Wilson Fisk. This has led them to offer several flashbacks into his childhood, and give us many slow, ponderous scenes between him and his love, Vanessa. The problem is that the "romance" between Fisk and Vanessa never once feels fully formed or developed. I've always had the sense that the writers spend too much time subtly hinting at some deeper connection between the two, without adequately explaining it. All we have really gotten is that Vanessa likes a strong, powerful man, and Fisk loves her for not judging him. But the way their scenes are labored and drawn out, you would think that they were the MacBeths. But never does the writing get anywhere near the depth or subtlety that it seems to hint at. There is very much a "hint and suggest endlessly, but don't show or tell" coyness about it, but I never felt as if the substance was there to back it up.

Don't let the red suit fool you here. Under the Daredevil suit
is Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter, a psychotic killer whose hyper
OCD grants him freakish hand-eye coordination, which in
turn makes any simple object lethal in his hands.
I also found the story arcs involving Foggy and Karen rather forgettable. In fact, there's an entire episode dedicated to Karen's backstory thrust right in towards the end of the season (episode 10 out of 13). Sure, it helps us get into some of Karen's motivation, but it really gut-punched a lot of the momentum that the story had been building to that point. And the takeaway was something that could probably have been done in half the time.

And these last points illustrate yet again one of the greatest flaws of the entire Netflix MCU - the writers have still not figured out how to write a full 13 episodes of compelling, focused story. Between all of its shows, going back to 2015, there have now been eleven different seasons, with nine of them being comprised of 13 episodes (only Iron Fist's second season and the lone season of The Defenders were shorter). And not one of them has felt like it merited that many episodes. The closest any seasons have gotten were the first seasons of both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, but even those felt a tad bloated. What took them 13 episodes probably could have been done in 11 or even as few as nine or ten. Other seasons and other shows were even more notably thin, with some seasons having only 6 or 7 episodes of quality material stretched over far too many chapters. Season three of Daredevil continues this unfortunate trend, feeling as if at least two or three episodes could  have been trimmed away, leaving a tighter, more focused season.

All that said, I mostly enjoyed it. There was a satisfying amount of action, which was often well done. The show even swung for the fences on the now-established "long shot" that each season has done. In this season, we are given an amazingly long, continuous shot that begins with Matt going into the prison where Fisk had been held, then seeing things gradually devolve into an all-out brawl in which Murdock has to fight his way out. It's an impressive sequence, and one of many that keep the tension in the show at appropriate levels.

As I write this, the fate of Daredevil and all the Netflix MCU shows is known - they have all been officially cancelled. However, I doubt that this will be the last we see of some of its better entries, which includes "The Man Without Fear." My hope is that if it gets picked up elsewhere, that network sees fit to make the necessary changes to elevate this and the other MCU shows to greater heights - something which has often seemed tantalizingly possible yet has never been fully realized.

The Punisher, season 2 (2019)

I found this season to be quite solid, if not as consistent as the first season.

Frank "The Punisher" Castle gets back to the bloody work of
avenging those whom
he sees as needing it. That, and of
scratching the itch of his own unquenchable bloodlust.
Although it wasn't official, the second season of The Punisher was all but a dead man walking before it even aired. Prior to its January release, three of its Netflix MCU brethren series, including the popular Daredevil, had officially been cancelled. Still, I was excited for this season, as I found the first season to be among the very best of the Netflix MCU seasons, only behind the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. At the end of that season, Frank "The Punisher" Castle had exacted his revenge on those responsible for the brutal murders of his wife and two children, leaving only his former friend-turned-enemy Billy Russo alive. Russo was left with a destroyed criminal network and a face ravaged by broken glass. Castle himself was given a clean slate by the U.S. government and set free under the promise that he never surface under his own name again.

Fast forward several months, and Frank, going by the alias Pete Castiglioni, is drifting through the country, minding his own business. But when he steps in to help a young woman, Amy, in distress in a bar in rural Michigan, he gets sucked into a violent struggle between some powerful forces. Frank;s attempt to keep Amy out of harm's way soon takes him back to New York City, where his ultimate nemesis and former best friend Billy Russo escapes the hospital where he has been recovering from severe facial trauma and amnesia. As Billy returns to his violent ways, he and Frank begin another bloody dance towards each other, as other outside forces hone in on all of them.

While I understand some viewers' and critics' issues with season 2, I thought that it did far more correctly than it did incorrectly.

The Punisher character was introduced back in the mid-1970s, in the comic "The Amazing Spider-Man." Right from his creation, Frank Castle was one of the darkest, most troubling characters in the Marvel Universe. In the mold of "Dirty" Harry Callahan, he was essentially a murderer who had some semblance of a code, executing people who most of us would agree were as close to pure evil as a person could be. This still never changes the facts that such characters are, still, murderers who only seem capable of dealing with violent people in even more violent ways. Handling such a character can be tricky, as trying to make them more palatable to a broader audience takes away exactly what makes them compelling. Conversely, some writers can swing too far the other way, making the characters ultra-violent and the stories B-grade, grindhouse fare. This is how we end up with adaptations like Punisher: War Zone.

One of the many, many thugs who comes at Castle, only to
end up on the losing end. And with the preternaturally skilled
killer, that only ends one way.
As with the first season, the show-runners for the Netflix version have done excellent work looking at Frank Castle as a very believable, and very disturbing person. The second season digs deeper into the fact that Frank is, and has always been, a violent killing machine. Just as his arch-nemesis and former friend Billy Russo has been, and just as newcomer John Pilgrim seemingly has always been. These three characters are soaked in blood, which they all seem to realize is their natural place. The season does a solid, if slightly incomplete, job of juxtaposing the three men as the narrative progresses, illustrating that Frank is only slightly less terrifying than the other two. It is rather compelling to note how each man's bloodthirsty nature is often subsumed by other aspects of their character. With Pilgrim, it is his religion. With Russo, it is his narcissism and materialism. And with Frank, it is his code and notion that he is protecting or avenging innocent people.

A show about such dark and violent people must, of course, offer grisly action, and The Punisher delivers again. I found many of the sequences very well done, having the grit, ferocity, and intensity that one would hope for. While there aren't quite as many creatively-choreographed scenarios as the first season, there are still more than a few clever set-ups, fist fights, and shootouts. The season finale actually features a few of the best of the entire season, which is what one would hope for.

This season was not without its weaknesses, though. The initial setup is, inexplicably, completely random. Even with dozens of reasons that dangerous people might be looking for Frank Castle, it's sheer chance that puts him in contact with Amy, kicking off the entire season story. And there is the inevitable lull in the middle episodes, where the pace languishes for about 4 episodes. On an aesthetic front, the makeup job which turns the previously-handsome Bill Russo into "Jigsaw" is laughably lame. In the comics, the character is horrifically scarred, but in this TV show, it looks like something you could do with a $25 Halloween makeup kit. And the twisted romance between Russo and his psychiatrist Floriana Lima always feels awkwardly contrived. While it was nice of the writers not to lean on strong characters from the past, I was hoping to see Micro for much of the season, to no avail.

Fortunately, the weaknesses mostly emerge in the middle of the season, and the show comes to a strong finish in its final four or five episodes. Marvel was smart to allow show-runner Steve Lightfoot plenty of freedom to make Frank Castle as dark and disturbing as he should be. In many ways, the character is a dark reflection of the violent impulses that course through the veins of American culture and society, and it's worth considering his troubling appeal not unlike the way we should do with the many "Dirty" Harry Callahan characters which have been popular over the years. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Before I Die #633: Freedom for Us (1931)

This is the 631st movie I've watch out of the 1,210 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Director: Rene Clair

Original French Title: A nous la liberte

A pretty enjoyable old slapstick film, with a few memorably charming twists.

This French comedy follows Emile, a prisoner who manages to escape prison, though he must leave his fellow escapee, Louis, behind during the attempt. Over the next several years, Emile works hard and becomes the head of a massive factory, turning him into a powerful man of wealth. The problem is that he has also turn into a rather heartless manager, overseeing a workforce which has become mechanized and utterly impersonal. Things become much more interesting for Emile when his former prison-mate, Louis, is released from prison and soon recognizes the still-fugitive Emile, who has been operating under an alias during his ascent up and through the business world. Emile is actually happy to see his old friend, whom he had to leave behind during their escape years before, but things become complicated in a hurry. Louis falls in love with one of the young women in Emile's factory, and several local criminals and business competitors start to zero in on Emile's factory. Hijinx ensue.

This movie is actually rather impressive, not just for its day but even by most modern standards. Right from the opening sequences, one can see a certain artistry to the cinematography, as we watch rows and rows of little rocking horses roll along an assembly line in the prison. The message about the monotony of industrialization isn't difficult to pick up, and such visual cues are a regular part of this film, and much of the framing and cinematography draws the eye in the way that a good painting might.

Just one of many shots which illustrates the artistic precision
present throughout much of the film. Besides this, there is also
more than a little heart in the story.
The story itself moves along at a fairly light and breezy pace, and we are clearly to take the details only so seriously. The tale of Emile's rise into a cigar-smoking capitalist is really just a setup to allow some Marx Brothers-type humor derived from seeing the collisions between "low" and "high" cultures, once Louis and his criminal associates arrive on the scene. There is also more than a little charm to the relationships between the two ex-cons, and even Louis's love for the factory worker Jeanne. And the ending has the welcome charm of a classic Laurel and Hardy film.

Fans of classic comedy from the era of Chaplin and the like would do well to try out this one. I had never even heard of it, but was glad to spend the hour-and-a-half getting to know it.

That's 631 movies down. Only 579 to go before I can die. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Newish Releases: Mandy (2018); Green Book (2018)

Mandy (2018)

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Whoa. Someone actually managed to cast the off-the-rails, 2010s Nicolas Cage in the perfect film for where he seems to be, career-wise. Mandy is a trippy, wild, phantasmagoric take on 1970s grindhouse cinema, with a slick 1980s shine on it. And I was riveted.

Oddly, it was a bit tough to track down this movie. After hearing significant buzz about it back in September or so, I searched and searched for a theater showing it in the Philadelphia area, to no avail. And so it came and went on the big screen. Then, I had to wait several months before it was available to rent through streaming services, and then only through Microsoft. But when I did fire it up...

I got a tale of Red (Nicolas Cage), a lumberjack who lives with his artist wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) in a secluded cabin in the woods. Mandy is an artist and a fan of fantasy novels, and the two have a deep and genuine love for each other. Their bliss is horrifically shattered when a small cult, lead by Jeremiah Sand, kidnaps Mandy to satisfy Sand's self-indulgent, messianic desires. Things go horribly wrong, and Red is sent on a mission of revenge. To gain his vengeance, he cuts a bloody swath through demonic bikers and drugged-out cultists.

This movie is balls-to-the-wall, gonzo crazy and trippy. But it's done with such an amazing sense of cinematic excellence that I was absolutely entranced. In some ways, it can remind one of the hallucinogenic grandeur of the cult classic El Topo, although Mandy has a clearer overall plot. What it shares with that earlier Jodorowsky film is a keen sense of framing, color, and setting. There is a simplistic clarity to the basic story elements which could have had a broad appeal, but the brutal nature of the events depicted puts the emotional tone more in the realm of 1970s grindhouse films, which featured horribly twisted people doing horribly twisted things to each other. Mandy bears more than a few of the hallmarks of those down-and-dirty flicks.

What elevates this movie beyond those filthy '70s shows, which I've never much gotten into, is that director Panos Cosmatos uses cinematic techniques to brilliantly illustrate a man completely and fantastically losing his mind in the most violent of manners. It is set up early in the movie that Red is a recovering addict. Then, there is a point where he falls off the wagon about as hard as a person can, and from that point, we begin to witness what might be an ever-more surreal fevered revenge fantasy. This is all brought home with brilliantly distinct costumes, set pieces, props, and masterful lighting. It's an amazing experience to drink in, if a rather disturbing one.

Obviously, this movie is not for everyone. It is packed with horrifically warped people doing disgusting and grizzly things to others. But if you're like me, and can see the movie as a creative, if violent, flight of fancy, then you may just be as transfixed by this flick as I was.

Green Book (2018)

Director: Peter Farrelly

Note: I saw this movie before its now-controversial selection as the Academy Awards' "Best Picture" winner.

Well-crafted and executed story based on real events from the early 1960s. Though it can be a bit on the nose at times, the overall themes, acting, and craft make this a solid film. Not necessarily an all-time, Oscar-worthy film, but a very solid one, nonetheless.

Based on a true story, the film follows Tony "Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American New Yorker and street-wise bouncer who, when he can't work an angle with his mouth, will effectively work it with his fists. In 1963, Tony Lip accepts a high-paying job driving and protecting Dr. Don Shirley on a music tour through the deep south. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is African-American, and is a supremely well-educated, intelligent, and cultured genius of music, and his trio is among the most well-regarded in the world. As the racist Tony and aloof Dr. Don spend nearly every waking hour together during the tour, they learn to see things from each others' very different perspective.

At this point, this movie has received probably more criticism that it's deserved. Yes, it is yet another "race relation" film told mostly from the perspective of a white person. And yes, it can sometimes be a bit obvious and even clumsy with its "messages." But there is plenty about this movie that is very well done, and even admirable.

What I appreciated most about the movie is that it utilizes a few new elements and infuses them into the rather well-worn tale of "white person learns to empathize with black people." Unlike most of such tales from the past, Green Book features an uneducated, blue-collar white character having to work with a black person who is vastly more worldly than he will ever be. Dr. Don is immensely poised, articulate, sophisticated, and wealthy in ways that Tony Lip could hardly dream of. The mostly unapologetically racist Tony soon sees Dr. Don's gifts, and he develops more than a little empathy for a man whose gifts and whose struggles as an African-American in the U.S. become clearer as the two men spend so much time on the road together.

The reserved, ultra-intelligent, and sometimes flamboyant
Doctor Don Shirley. It isn't difficult to imagine a better, bolder
film being made more from the perspective lofty musical savant. 
But what, one might wonder, could Dr. Don learn from a New York ruffian-for-hire? Well, this is where the movie starts to get a tad choppy in its themes. While there is some fairly authentic-seeming lessons that a street guy like Tony imparts upon Don, such as introducing him to popular Motown and rhythm and blues music of the early 1960s, there are other nuggets that are almost painful to see. Probably the most cringe-worthy is Tony force-feeding the more aristocratic Don his first ever taste of fried chicken. Having a white man "teach" a black man "the joys of fried chicken" is one of those things that probably looked funnier and more effective on paper than it did on film. There are a few moments such as this, though they are fortunately low in number. And in the end, the film is not one where the two characters have such grand revelations that their entire lives are changes. Ultimately, they change in relatively small but important ways, while remaining themselves for the most part.

A great strength of the movie is is the performances of the two leads, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. The two men play their extremely opposite roles to perfection, lending more than a little authenticity to the proceedings. They're both such excellent actors that they can sell the comedy just as well as the drama, which elevates the film appreciably.

Both my wife and I had a similar thought about this movie - that it would have been more effective and enlightening to see the tale much more from Doctor Don's perspective than from Tony's. Though we do get a few scenes in which the brilliant musician struggles with being so very isolated, the bulk of the movie's scenes include the more accessibly appealing ruffian Tony. Focusing on the more elusive and mysterious doctor would have challenged us viewers more, but would have offered us something more novel. 

Friday, March 1, 2019

New Release! Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018)

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

A visually stunning, highly imaginative and entertaining take on the well-worn paths of the Spider-Man mythos.

Anyone who knows Marvel's Spider-Man character knows the basics of his origin - a young man, Peter Parker, is bitten by an irradiated spider, and Parker then acquires certain spider-like abilities. He can walk on walls, has proportional strength which allows him to bench press buses, and gains a "spider sense" which warns him of imminent physical danger. Not long after acquiring these abilities, Peter's arrogance and selfishness lead him to allow a criminal to escape - a criminal who soon after kills his beloved Uncle Ben. The lesson Parker takes from this is that "With great power comes great responsibility."

This tale has been told and paraphrased plenty of times over the years, including two separate but equally detailed film renditions, one in 2002 and the next in 2012. In fact, the story was so overly familiar that when Marvel added yet a newer version of the famous web-slinger in the 2017 film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, they made a virtual joke out of not rehashing Peter Parker's origin story. They just jumped right into what Parker was doing after his spider mishap.

So how does Into the Spider-verse fit into all of this? By going extra-dimensional, and having a creative blast doing it.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse initially introduces us to a Spider-Man who is familiar but not exactly the Spider-Man most of us have known for decades. His name is Peter Parker, but there are a few tweaks to his look and life. More strangely, we are not initially seeing his story from his perspective, but rather that of a neighborhood kid, Miles Morales. Morales eventually is bitten by a radioactive spider himself, but not in a lab, as was the original Spider-Man, but rather in an underground sewage area where he and his uncle practice graffiti. Before long, Morales finds that he exhibits the same extraordinary abilities of the famous New York superhero in red and blue tights. Not only that, but he finds himself in the middle of a battle that sees the arch-nemesis Kingpin kill Peter Parker during a struggle surrounding a device that will open portals to other dimensions. And what ends up spilling into Miles's world? Other Spider-People from those other dimensions. Things get, shall we say, complicated.

Morales gradually meets the various Spider-Beings - another Parker Spider-Man, Spider-Gwen, and even Spider-Ham and a few other even lesser-known iterations of the classic hero - and they seek to thwart Kingpin's nefarious schemes.

Miles Morales, the likable kid who has the mantle of
"Spider-Man" thrust onto his shoulders unexpectedly. He's a
great character, adding his own welcome insecurities and quirks.
This is obviously not your grandfather's Spider-Man story. There's a lot going on in this movie, but it somehow never gets too crazy to handle. With the focus remaining on the ever-lovable Miles Morales, the tale is easier to digest, as he is initially just as confused as we viewers probably are. It also helps that the narrative itself makes fun of its own insanity more than a few times. But what makes the story most satisfying is the primary arc about Morales's growth as a young man who learns how to be a hero.

Beyond the creative story, the most obvious strength of this movie is the dazzling visuals. Frankly, I've never seen anything like it. Making full use of the miracles of modern digital animation, Into the Spider-Verse combines a plethora of styles and techniques taken from graphic art, cinema, and other visual arts to dazzle us for the entire story's length. My wife, not particularly a fan of comics or the movies based on them, was impressed enough to admit that she would gladly go back and watch the movie again, just for the visuals.

More than a few fans and well-respected critics have rated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse as their favorite superhero flick of 2018. And that's saying something, in a year that featured Avengers: Infinity War and the Oscar-nominated Black Panther. I can't argue with them either. For sheer creativity and entertainment, Into the Spiderverse has taken a place among the very best of fantasy action movies, animated or otherwise. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

New Release! Vice (2018)

Director: Adam McKay

A reasonably entertaining look at certain key aspects of Dick Cheney - arguably the most powerful and influential vice-president the United States has ever had in office. However, it is a look very often colored by writer and director Adam McKay's strong political biases.

Not unlike his smash hit 2016 film The Big Short, Vice adopts a coy, humorous style and tone to dig into some very real historical events. In this case, the nature of Dick Cheney, a man who seemed never to have been "the smartest guy in the room" or much of a politician, but was perhaps one of the most low-key and successful opportunists the White House will ever see. By tracing his roots from a hard-drinking, Yale dropout hanging power lines in Wyoming to and through his time as a congressional intern, Chief of Staff, and ultimately Vice President, we get a portrait of a man guided by little more than a rough set of conservative ideas, a hyper-keen nose for opportunity and power, and propelled by an ability to seem far less threatening than he actually was.

While Cheney is clearly a rather interesting modern historical figure, whose fingerprints are still all over the U.S. political landscape, the more obvious set of fingerprints on this movie are Adam McKay's. My wife even compared it to a Michael Moore film, in that Vice has a style that overwhelms and most likely obliterates much of its substance. The narrative is non-linear. There are several self-indulgent (though funny) flights of humorous fancy, and more than a few wink-wink, nudge-nudge moments directed right at those of us in the audience. Honestly, it felt far too flippant, given the gravity of much of the subject matter. This only grows more obvious as the story arrives at the wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq. When a filmmaker is essentially laying hundreds of thousands of civilians' dead bodies at a man's doorstep, it seems atonal to be taking little comic jabs at his speaking style and endless series of heart attacks.

The seemingly non-threatening Dick Cheney. Christian Bale
turns in another transformation and excellent performance,
even if cinematic forces beyond his control weaken the film.
Savvy viewers will probably be able to suss out the fact from the fiction, but it's not always easy. In addition, the implications that McKay makes about Cheney are, to be honest, unfair at times. Sometimes painfully unfair. Yes, Cheney had a big enough hand in pushing the Iraq War in 2003 that he deserves a big portion of the blame. One could even argue that he should probably have gone to jail for war crimes. But to suggest that every dead body from that war was solely Cheney's fault is a gross oversimplification. There were no end of hawks and enablers surrounding that debacle, from the president right on down to the tens of millions of Americans who fully supported to war, even as it became more and more obvious that it had been predicated on a massive lie. While I understand that such issues are too complex and uninteresting for an "entertainment" like McKay's movie, I can only think that he should honor the subject's complexity or leave it the hell alone.

Ultimately, I probably agree with McKay's general feelings about Cheney and many of his cohort through the 1980s and 2000s. But I also think that historical events, especially recent ones, need to be handled with respect. What Vice gave us elicits more than a few laughs, but they are laughs that fade once the credits roll and one realizes just what the consequences were of the subject's actions. It is all a subject which deserves a more thorough, sober look through the form of a quality documentary, rather than a streamlined, comic version that leaves out far too many of the other relevant facts and people involved.