Wednesday, February 21, 2018

New Release! Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018)

Director: Martin McDonagh

A brilliantly biting, strikingly dark comedy that is noted director Martin McDonagh's best to date.

Taking place in the titular small town in roughly modern times, local woman Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents out three billboards lined up in a row along a little-used road near her home. On the billboards, she places three connected phrases, the ultimate message of which is to question the local sheriff, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), as to why he has yet to find the person(s) responsible for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter, a horrific act which happened a year prior. The billboards set off a range of emotions in several of the townspeople, and they expose more than a few sentiments that have lingered slightly beneath the surface for many. Most of these sentiments are connected to deep anger, and the only person who might be angrier than Mildred herself is the none-too-bright deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist and homophobic thug who more often than he wishes finds himself in the middle of the firestorm that Mildred sets off with her billboards.

Anyone who has seen Martin McDonagh's other films In Bruges or Seven Psychopaths knows that he loves his humor pitch-dark, and Three Billboards is right in line with his previous movies. But while In Bruges was more overtly comic, and Seven Psychopaths had a much more bizarre, overall gonzo feel to it, Three Billboards includes more genuine, and genuinely moving, emotional turns. Yes, the plot turns and even sometimes the characters are quite obviously works of fiction, given the sometimes-extreme nature of what occurs and the main players' reactions. But it all has a mostly cohesive feel, and one that is helped along by plenty of downright hilarious (but again, dark) comedy. McDonagh seems to have found his best balance of his sly storytelling abilities and a certain poignancy with which he has only flirted in the past. The running theme he works with here is that of anger in several forms, and how people handle it in sometimes highly destructive ways, even when that anger is justified. This seems like a topic especially relevant to our current times.

Frances McDormand is an immense force in this movie,
utterly unafraid to face down anyone she sees as coming
between her and her desired justice. This includes head-
strong bully cops, like Sam Rockwell's Officer Dixon.
This movie has, along with grabbing a nomination for Oscar Best Picture, has also been nominated for a couple of acting Academy Awards. I can't argue, with Frances McDormand once again turning in a brilliant performance as the ever-salty, tough- and mad-as-hell Mildred. And Sam Rockwell is excellent as the mostly repugnant Officer Dixon, though I actually think that he has had a few performances even more worthy of recognition than this one, most notably in Moon. Though not nominated for any grand awards, Woody Harrelson also turns in a typically fine performance, and all of the bit players are great.

I will say that not everything in the movie fits perfectly into place. There are a few over-the-top or simply oddball scenes which feel too much at odds with the overall tone at times. And the change that Officer Dixon undergoes is a bit inexplicable in a few ways. Still, the movie's strengths do more than enough to outweigh such questionable elements.

At this point, I have seen eight of the nine nominees for Oscar Best Picture, and Three Billboards is among my favorites. Though it might not be as tight or quite as narratively polished as several of the other nominees, it is, along with Get Out, the gutsiest and most unique of them all. I give it a semi-outside chance at winning, but I'll be surprised if it wins the big award. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

New Release! Black Panther (2018)

Spoiler-Free Section! Don't Panic.

Director: Ryan Coogler

It may not be among the very best fantasy/action movies ever, but Black Panther is easily the most wonderfully unique superhero movie yet put on screen.

Part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and introduced in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, the title character's real name is T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), crown prince in the tiny, fictitious African country of Wakanda. To the rest of the world, Wakanda is a poor nation which has virtually no dealings with the international community. However, the truth is that Wakanda possesses technology so incredibly advanced that it puts the rest of the planet to shame. To avoid undue attention due to their otherworldly rescources, Wakanda has hidden itself for centuries behind a large cloaking shield, appearing from the outside like an undeveloped rainforest. Not long before the events of this movie, Wakanda's previous king was murdered, leaving T'Challa to claim the throne and continue his ancestors' rule over their country. A great aid to Wakanda's kings is the ubiquitous presence of the ultra-rare metal vibranium, which also leads to the growth of a special herb which can grant its consumer amazingly enhanced strength, speed, and senses, thus creating the protector persona of "The Black Panther." A serious threat emerges, however, when T'Challa pursues Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), an arms dealer who has escaped Wakandan justice for decades. Working with Klaue is the mysterious mercenary Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, who has eyes on the Wakandan throne, a plan to take it, and a dark vision for how to use Wakanda's vastly superior technology.

Right off, I'll point out the two things that could have been a bit better with the film, though there aren't many. As an action/adventure story, the fight and action sequences were solid but nothing terribly special. This is in keeping with other MCU movies, which often don't standout with their action or fight choreography, with only a few exceptions such as several sequences in The Avengers and nearly any of the brilliant fight scenes in the second and third Captain America films: The Winter Soldier and Civil War. They're decent, but don't capture my attention as much as they probably could. One exception is a thrilling bar fight followed by a pursuit sequence along the streets of Busan, South Korea, where T'Challa's chief general and bodyguard Okoye (Dania Gurira) completely owns the screen with her tough and willful demeanor and physicality. Aside from this, the action was simply adequate, perhaps partially due to a slight overuse of CGI.

The second is that I felt that not enough time is given over to exploring the main villain, Erik Killmonger. In some ways, which I'll get into in the spoiler section below, he is impressively unique in the MCU. However, a little more time in his background, and perhaps even a little more nuance to his character, might have gone a longer way towards building the sense of the threat which he poses throughout the movie. The film is not short, clocking in at 134 minutes, but I wouldn't have minded another ten or so minutes following Killmonger's past or even his current path to dominate Wakanda. As it is, I felt that his scheme and its ramifications unfold a bit too quickly to be have maximum impact for the story. And while he is a villain who represents something deeper than any past MCU villain, who tend to be rather dull, he is presented in a mostly one-note way that becomes stale not long after the character truly emerges.

T'Challa, flanked by spy master Nakia (left) and his fiercest
general and bodyguard Okoye) right. The CGI is a bit too
heavy for my tastes, but the diversity of intriguing characters
far outweighs any aesthetic shortcomings of the film.
Those two area aside, Black Panther is an amazing entry into the MCU for several reasons. The most obvious, and the one which is rightfully getting so much attention, is that this movie is the very first big-budget action/adventure movie, superhero or not, to be completely dominated by African-descended artists. From the director right on down through the writers and cast, we see black people in charge of everything. And the story bears the same long-overdue characteristic. Yes, there have been plenty of movies that focused on Africans and African-descended peoples before, but any large-scale production of them has always had them in the role of victim and the oppressed. And while such stories have certainly needed to be told, Black Panther represents a great acheivement in providing a great adventure tale in which Africans are in positions of great power, and the story is not about dealing with subordination at the hands of others. Rather, it is almost Shakespearian in its themes of responsibility of leadership, and the consequences of turning one's back on those less fortunate. At every turn of this movie, it is black people who are in control, and they all make it thoroughly clear that they have long had their own stories to tell.

Not stopping at moving the MCU a quantum leap forward in terms of black representation, another inspiring aspect is the movie's inclusion of many strong female characters. According to the mythology of the fictional Wakanda, the royal bodyguards are all women warriors who also serve as Wakanda's special forces units. Their general, Okoye, is as bad-ass a character as you're going to find in the MCU. Though she doesn't possess any superpowers, seeing her fighting skills and vibranium-strength determination are worth the price of admission. And lest that not be enough, T'Challa's younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), is a scientific genius who oversees Wakanda's unparalleled science corps. A witty and playful presence, she is just as important to T'Challa's success as any powers or political position he possesses.

This brings me to perhaps a less obvious but more profound characteristic of the movie: it's always about far more than its title character. This might seem obvious until one thinks about it a bit more. All superhero movies thus far have been about a single person or an ensemble "team." All of the MCU movies and most other superhero films are about a lone person - a Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, and on and on - who undergoes some physical, emotional, or mental change and sets out to help or change the world. Black Panther, however, is different. It is not about some lone vigilante doing what he thinks it right - it is about a very capable young leader who is constantly, from the very first scenes of the movie, thinking about his country and its people. His fate is not separate from theirs - they are all tightly interwoven, so that as he goes, so goes his beloved Wakanda, and vice-versa. This is illustrated throughout the movie's tale, as evidenced by just how important the secondary characters are. His general Okoye, Wakandan spy and former love Nadia, his sister Shuri, his brother W'Kabi, and so many others are all more invested in T'Challa's success than any group of secondary characters in any superhero movie that I can think of. And this is to say nothing of the even larger theme of isolationism, which is a subject with a real-world relevence only matched in the MCU by The Winter Soldier and its themes of geopolitics and global surveillance.

The icing on this rather rich cake of superhero movie novelties is that the movie is mostly a joy to look at. Though it is disconcertingly dark and shadow-laden in its first few sequences, the film soon burst to vibrant life, featuring dazzling colors and landscapes. The costumes, blends of traditional African clothing from various tribes and ethnic groups with creative modern wear, are enjoyable to take in. The Panther's costume is one of the best in the MCU, relatively simple as it is. The set designers also did some fascinating things to create the Wakandan capital city, creating a sort of Blade Runner type blend of futuristic and worn-in traditional city features, only in the far sunnier and pleasant setting of the gorgeous plains, hills, and mountains of Africa. To go along with the lush visuals is the most novel soundtrack yet offered in a major superhero movie. Along with musical genius Mark Mothersbaugh's quirky, techno-sci-fi score for Thor: Ragnarok last November, the soundtrack and score for Black Panther is a unique mix of traditional African sounds and modern hip-hop, much of it crafted by current "it guy" rapper Kendrick Lamar.

Black Panther really is worthy of the hype. Even if it does not do the action/adventure elements of superhero movies to the highest quality, it breaks so much new ground in skilled ways that it will forever stand as a touchstone for fantasy and action/adventure movies to come, showing that these are not landscapes only for white Westerners. Not by a longshot.

I would have preferred a few more scenes such as this one,
although where tempers are running just a tad cooler. It would
have allowed Killmonger's purpose to take on a bit more
weight than his always-seething rage ever allows. 
Spoiler-Laden Section. You've Been Warned

A few additional thoughts on specifics:

To continue my thoughts on the Erik "Killmonger" character - his arc was simultaneously thrilling in its depth but frustrating in its lack of detailed development. As the narrative unfolds and we learn that Killmonger is the son of the former king's brother, who was slain for arguably well-intentioned treason, we understand why he is so enraged and on his mission to wrest the throne away from T'Challa. And actor Michael B. Jordan plays the righteous anger part exceptionally well. He is, with every word and step, all menacing swagger and frightening visionary. However, I felt that an opportunity was missed to completely humanize him. We learn that he grew up an orphan on the rough streets of 1990s Oakland, and the poverty and depravation that he lived and saw fueled his desire to rise through the ranks of the U.S. military and become a highly effective black ops assassin. But the scenes with him never slow down enough to show him as anything more than a seething ball of rage. This is a character who has obviously thought his plan through and been working through it for literally decades. We must infer that he is smart and calculating, but also that he feels immense pain at a sense of abandonment by his ancenstral country. The anger is all there on the screen, but the deep pain that must reside in his heart never is. I think that this is where I would like to have seen just a little more time, even just a scene or two, where Killmonger is not just raging at all of the Wakandans whom he confronts, but rather lays out clear, well-reasoned grievances at their feet. There is a bit of this, but I feel more would have served the character and story a bit better.

I was quite impressed with the use of the lone "connector" character to the broader MCU, American C.I.A. agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Ross was introduced, along with T'Challa, in Civil War, and then was presented mostly as a somewhat arrogant figure. In Black Panther, he is used to nice effect, only becoming the "outsider" to Wakanda later in the film, and never becoming any sort of lens through which white viewers like myself are supposed to see and understand the world of Wakandan's people and rich culture. And Ross, while providing more than a few laughs, never devolves into mere comic relief. We learn that, before becoming a C.I.A. agent, he had been an air force pilot - a background which eventually allows him to lend a hand to T'Challa's people in their grand fight against Killmonger.

I'll admit that I was hoping for the post-credits scene to include Steve Rogers, as we've neither seen nor heard of his whereabouts since Civil War. While that didn't happen, we got almost the next best thing, and it was great to see Bucky Barnes brought out of his voluntary coma and presumably nursed back to health by Shuri. It's not as strong a teaser for Infinity War as the end of Thor: Ragnarok, but a decent one all the same. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

New Release! Phantom Thread (2018)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

A beautifully-constructed and acted film, though one that seemed to be missing one or two essential ingredients to fully resonate with me.

The movie follows the romance between Stevens Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Alma (Vicky Krieps). Woodcock is a 60-something-year-old fashion designer of the highest order in 1950s England, catering to artistocrats and royalty both local and international. A quirky, finicky sort, Woodcock has never been married and tends to only maintain brief relationships with an cycle of ever-changing young muses. When he attracts what is likely to be the latest object of his peculiarly self-absorbed affections, Alma, he soon learns that she has more of an individual will than his past loves. Alma's independent spirit begins to play havok with Woodcock's guarded emotions, eventually affecting his ability to maintain his intense focus on his fashion design business, which he runs with his stern elder sister, the business-savvy Cyril (Lesley Manville).

As I write this, it has been about a week since I saw the movie, and I am still processing the film and deciding exactly how much I liked it. And I did like it. Yet, it still has not completely grabbed hold of my imagination or spirit in the way that other Anderson movies have, such as There Will Be Blood or even Boogie Nights, in its way. P. T. Anderson loves immersing himself and us viewers into worlds which we are unlikely to have seen before - whether the world of the changing 1970s pornography business, the ruthless world of big oil around the turn of the 20th century, or the world of aristocratic fashion in 1950s England. And like those earlier films, Phantom Thread  presents that last world in a highly engaging way, even for someone like me who knows and cares very little about it. By constructing setting and characters so skillfully, we are drawn into just what makes the highly prickly Woodcock and his exquisite work so very attractive to those around him.

A large part of the setting's appeal is the lush and lavish sets and costumes on dislpay throughout the picture. Again, I am one who cares little about fashion, but it is hard not to enjoy the visual splendor of this movie, at least on a purely aesthetic level.

Alma (left) jabs back after Woodcock suggests that she she
"has no taste." The emotional tug-of-war is at the heart of
this film, though it is a relatively measured battle described
with the same calm pace as Woodcock's design process.
Of course, the visuals are merely the shallowest aspect of this movie. Anderson's best movies have always been about the interactions between interesting characters. With Phantom Thread, I felt that this was almost accomplished, but fell just short of completely arresting me. Woodcock's genius, eccentricities, and difficult nature are fairly fascinating. And there is an intellectual appeal to the way that Alma becomes what seems to be the first real challenge to his carefully-constructed world and identity. But it is mostly an intellectual appeal, rather than an emotional one. This is partly due to the calm, often cold and detached way that the story is told and the characters often behave. Alma is clearly meant to be the more grounded, no-nonsense, open character here, yet we only ever learn so much about her. The story does get into Woodcock's family background and we get some important bits about his childhood, but Alma? We never learn so much as which country she is from, anything about her family, or much else. She almost serves purely as a bizarre balm to Woodcock's closed-off inner soul - a sort of uber-British version of the "manic pixie dreamgirl" type - whose sole purpose in the story is to "fix" the broken genius.

This is, obviously, just my current read on the movie. Even now I feel that other interpretations can be made; I'm likely to rethink my own feelings about this movie, even if I don't bother to see it again any time soon. It is one, however, which I would recommend to most people. Provided that you don't grow bored with very "British" movies that tend to move with a very measured pace and focus on rather subtle interactions between oft-uptight characters, then you're likely to find something to like in this one. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Personal Essay: The Whys of My Joy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe


Why is a 42-year-old man spending so much time in a fantasy land drawn from worlds originally created for young readers?

With the imminent release of Black Panther - the eighteenth installment of films in the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - I've once again been going back and rewatching much of the MCU. And not just the 17 prior films, each of which I've already seen anywhere from two to seven or eight times. I'm also throwing in a few dozen of the TV shows, as well as the tied-in comic books which offer a little more narrative glue to the massively interconnected universe.

But why? I've got better things to do, no doubt. Or at least, more "cultured" things to do. I'm an avid reader who can appreciate the works of Japanese masters like Yukio Mishima and Shuusaku Endo, English classicists like Robert Graves, French luminaries like Michel Houellebecq, and plenty of others. I also adore more "artsy" films by modern masters like Darren Aronofsky and Denis Villeneuve and dive into forgotten or obscure old movies regularly. So I find myself asking why I continue to go back to the popcorn entertainment of the MCU.

The Flash and Green Arrow - two very popular shows that I
just don't have the time to add to my fantasy plate.
It is quite clear what it is not - it is not a mere fascination with the genre of comic book superheroes. The market is obviously awash with a ton of superhero films and TV shows, many of which I don't bother watching. I tried the DC Extended Universe films and, aside from Wonder Woman, found them poor to the point that I didn't even bother with last November's bid budget Justice League. I also haven't bothered at all with the DC TV shows like The Flash or Arrow, although they do receive highly positive reviews from critics and fans alike, and despite the fact that The Flash was one of my favorite superheroes as a kid.

No, it's only the MCU that I go to over and over again. The seventeen movies. The two-hundred-twenty and counting TV episodes from more than a dozen different shows, across four different media outlets, with more jumping on board all the time. About every year, I go back and work through all of the films and different chunks of the TV shows. I'm in the middle of the latest relapse, and I'm loving it as much as I ever have.

The thing is, it's not that I think for one second that these are the greatest movies or shows ever made. Far from it. Jessica Jones on Netflix, which is pretty awesome, can't hold a candle to The Wire or TV fare of the highest quality. And Captain America: The Winter Soldier, probably my favorite MCU film to date, is nowhere near the same objective class as a universally acknowledged classic like The Seven Samurai or even a modern masterpiece like Ex Machina. I could even argue that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is a better set of superhero movies than any trio of MCU films. Still, despite my complete awareness of their limitations, I am completely immersed in the world. These days, I am asking myself "Why?" I've come up with an amalgam answer comprised of three parts:

Nostalgia

You can never underestimate it.

I had always had a few comic books floating around when I was around ten to twelve years old, but they were mostly random "grab bag" kinds of comics. A few odd issues of Batman. A random issue of Rom: Space Knight or other similarly forgettable characters. Aside from a steady collection of G.I. Joe, which I was into because I was a huge fan of the toys and TV show, I didn't keep up with anything regularly. This changed when I was 15 years old, and I was dazzled by the cover of a comic book I saw in the rack at the local 7-11. The year was 1991, and the comic was issue #275 of The Uncanny X-Men. I had always known the X-Men characters, and even had the odd issue or two of them floating around, but their story was rather serialized, and it was difficult to follow if you only had one issue from every two or three years. Issue #275 was stunning, though. Featuring the super crisp linework of popular comic artist legend-in-the-making Jim Lee, I was drawn into the double-length book and purchased it despite its relatively high price of $1.50 (remember, younger readers, this was 1991). Upon getting it home, I devoured it. Over and over, I gazed at the pages and the characters within them. I couldn't really follow everything in the highly serialized tale, but I was hooked.

The massive gatefold cover of The Uncanny X-Men, issue #275. This was my
gateway drug into the massive universe of Marvel comics.
Within two years, I would be working at the local comic book store, immersed in all things comic book. Although I was aware of nearly everything in the popular comic books realms, my favorite characters tended to be those drawn by the flashiest artists. The aforementioned Jim Lee, and later Whilce Portacio, turned me into a massive fan of all of the X-Men comics and several other mutant-focused comics like X-Factor, X-Force, and others. Eventual toy magnate Todd McFarlane's brilliantly detailed loops and whorls pulled me into the world of Spider-Man, and the fun writing of Peter David and uniquely smooth pencil work of Dale Keown had me following the adventures of The Hulk. Though I read all sorts of other comics, it was these Marvel offerings that I knew best, eventually building up runs of those books that spanned over fifteen years, going back into the early 1980s and up through most of the 1990s. While I certainly knew the basic ins and outs of other major characters, including legendary DC properties like Superman, Batman, and the other Justice League members, Marvel was where my heart always lie.

By the time I was in my early twenties, I had discovered darker, more mature and sophisticated comics by the great British writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and the like. I still kept up with the classic Marvel heroes, but they eventually took a distant backseat to the stories and characters more deeply influenced by and infused with centuries-old storytelling techniques drawn from more mature, classic novels of the past. All the same, just like nearly any type of cultural forms with which we fall in love between the ages of 12 and 18, Marvel comics will always have a place in my heart. Seeing those characters lovingly brought to life in live-action reignites some of that pleasure I had as a kid, losing myself in the fantasy of being able to walk on walls, soar through the air, or shrug off bullets and injuries with only a mild sneer and a pithy one-liner.

Comic Book Superhero Movies Done Right (Finally)

Let's face it - for most of the history of moving pictures, comic book superheroes simply had no chance of being brought to quality life on the big screen. Since the creation of the modern superhero with Superman's introduction in 1938, classic comic books contain so many fantastic elements that movie studios simply didn't have the resources to truly do them justice. This is what made Superman in 1978 so huge - effects had finally gotten just good enough to bring the majesty of a superhero to life. 1980's Superman II even improved on the original, with slightly better effects and a much better story. Then, an odd thing happened. Good superhero movies pretty much disappeared for a while. Superman III was a comic farce, and Superman IV was so bad that it killed the franchise for nearly two decades. It wasn't until Tim Burton's Batman in 1988 that we got another quality superhero movie. Alas, that franchise followed nearly the same trajectory as Superman - ever weakening sequels ending in a fourth film so awful that the franchise was deep-sixed for years.

And that was about it for much of my younger life. I loved movies as a kid, especially fantasy and adventure - two genres with massive overlap in the comic book world. And yet right up until I was about 25 years old, we basically only had four quality movies featuring A-list comic book superheroes, and those were getting more and more outdated with every passing year.

Bryan Singer's X-Men was the first time any
studio actually got a major Marvel property
right in a movie. It was just the start.
Then came Bryan Singer's X-Men. I was extremely wary about this. This movie came out back in 2000, when I was 24 years old. It was just around the time that I was completely finished with faithfully following my old Marvel superhero comics, but the characters were still certainly something I held dear. It seemed like a tall order to ask someone, anyone, to depict my favorite band of outcast mutants in a solid movie. Imagine my surprise, then, when the movie was actually pretty good. Not great, mind you, but pretty good. Two years later, arguably my favorite all-time costumed hero Spider-Man got excellent treatment in Sam Raimi's highly entertaining 2002 Spider-Man. And then 2003 brought us X-Men 2, while 2004 saw Spider-Man 2, two sequels that actually surpassed the solid originals. Unfortunately, both franchises saw downturns in their third installments 2006 and 2007. However, we now all had Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins to fawn over, to say nothing of the lightning bolt that would be 2008's The Dark Knight.

And on it went, with more and more heavy hitter comic book characters getting more consistently quality movies. Yes, there have been and continue to be some duds, even by major studios with obscene amounts of money (I cite X-Men Origins: Wolverine as a major offender). But many of the filmmakers are genuine lovers of comics, most of them roughly my age. These people have blended their own passion for the old comic book heroes with the filmmaking skills that they've honed as professionals. And now that movie studios have opened up their bank accounts to them, and now that special and digital effects have evolved so much, there is almost nothing which they cannot bring to life on screen.

With all of this talent and love going into these movies, we have simply been getting higher quality superhero films, far more consistently than ever before. Although some people will never embrace the fantasy nature of them, the same way they will never have interest in The Lord of the Rings movies or even science-fiction movies, very few people can deny that many of these movies are rather well made. And the MCU has created some of the very best of the last decade.

The Shared Universe

This aspect might be the one that truly has me hooked.

I may have a mild obsessive-compulsive streak. I like order. Especially linear order. For as long as I can remember, I've been pretty good at remembering the general chronology of things and narrative sequencing. There is simply a clear logic and order to such things which can be comforting. This is a trait that I believe I share with many lovers of science-fiction - the general love of continuity.

Back in the early 1990s, an amazing thing happened in the comic book industry. At that time, Marvel and DC had been the undisputed titans of the comic book superhero world for decades. No other company came remotely close to them in this regard. But then, within the span of about 18 months between early 1991 and late 1992, a little-known publishing company called Valiant had
One of the very first Valiant comics,
which would send shockwaves through the
industry in the early 1990s.
become the hottest thing in the comic world. By the middle of 1992, the company only had about five different titles, but the earliest issues of them were selling for upwards of $75 or $100, massive markups from the $1.75 cover price. Such incredible inflation of value was unprecedented in the comic book world. Curiously, the art in the books wasn't anything to write home about. And though the stories and characters were solid and interesting, they weren't markedly better than what Marvel and DC were publishing. What truly sparked people's collecting frenzy and fandom, along with very low print runs, was a carefully curated continuity which Valiant's chief editor was steadily maintaining. Comic book fans who loved their universes were getting the chance to get in on the ground floor of an entire new world - one where key characters would actually die and stay dead, raising the stakes even higher, and often impacting stories and characters in the other comics in the Valiant line. This was rather different from the relatively bloated Marvel and DC worlds, where the characters would come across each other and team up, but there didn't seem to be any great emphasis placed on the lasting effects of actions from one issue or story arc to the next, and certainly not across different titles. Add in the fact that those two companies would do soft-reboot crossovers every year or so, and Valiant's much smaller, ordered world became much more appealing. It would all fall apart by about 1993 and 1994, with Valiant succumbing to the pressures of greed and other problems, but that exciting period prior to its collapse is impossible to forget.

When original Valiant's kind of consistency is created and maintained, it helps create a comforting integrity to the fantasy world. This is why fantasy and science-fiction fans (who often overlap heavily with comic book fans) are happy to delve into the little details with glee. Lord of the Rings fans will gladly pore over the relatively dry Silmarillion, with its minutiae about the millenia-long history Tolkien's Middle Earth. Song of Ice and Fire readers (like myself) will buy and closely read of the histories that predate the main stories by centuries or even millenia, and take place far away from the events of the primary novels. Devoted Trekkies teach themselves the invented Klingon language and study blueprints for the various spacecraft in Gene Rodenberry's created galaxy of the future. Hardcore nerds love details.

The mind behind the MCU, primarily Kevin Feige, realized this early on. Although the grand vision of the Cinematic Universe was only potential, the seeds were being sown in the first two movies, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, with those first little teasers tacked on at the ends of the films. Those minor appearances of Agent Coulson and Nick Fury in Iron Man and Tony Stark in The Incredible Hulk were not shy about hinting at an Avengers movie. And with every successive film, the connections grew tighter and more numerous, arguably to a fault.

At this point, the connectivity in the narrative can almost be a bit of a hindrance, especially when movies are trying to bring in new viewers. While I absolutely loved Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok, a viewer who hadn't seen at least two previous MCU films was likely to have major questions that those individual films presumed audiences already knew the answers to. All the same, for the most part, nerdy viewers like myself love the continuous narrative, as it serves to reinforce the illusion that those worlds on screen have the same integrity as the real world which we live in. When that breaks down, it feels as if something is lost, and that the characters are all back on their own separate, more lonely islands.

An Addict, Circumspected

And so I go on. I long ago secured my tickets to Black Panther, and am all sorts of excited about The Avengers: Infinity War. My wife has been a sport about all of this, often going out with me to watch the MCU films. She's even enjoyed more than a few of them, to a certain extent. There was actually a moment after Age of Ultron came out that I wondered if my enjoyment in the series was waning, but this has been alleviated with the number of strong films and TV shows far outnumbering the few duds in the MCU (I'm looking your way, Iron Fist and Inhumans). I still get that little thrill that comes when loading up a beloved movie. They may not be high art, but they still provide me with plenty of fun.

I have no idea just how long the MCU will carry on, though it is not going to be any time soon. The movies continue to rake in staggering amounts of money, and Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige has confirmed that they have films roughly planned out up through the next eight or ten years. I do find it comforting to know that, even if I somehow grow out of enjoying these rather light-hearted, pure escapist, fantasy worlds, that they will still be there for those who love them.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

New Release! Darkest Hour (2017)

Director: Joe Wright

A very solid dramatization of a key two weeks in the history of Britain and the world, although one that I found a bit slow and perhaps geared more towards Anglophiles.

The movie covers the historically important two-week period in early 1940 when England is on the brink of being defeated by the Nazis. Back on its heels, the English Parliament has booted Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain out of office and elected controversial figure Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) to the position. With the fate of his country in the balance, the pugnacious and oft-divisive Churchill is forced to marshal enough support from the quixotic Parliament to enact his plans. The real crux comes with the Dunkirk dilemma, when the entire British ground army of 300,000 men is stranded on the Belgian beach with no obvious escape from the rapidly-approaching German forces. Churchill must decide whether to surrender to the Nazis and prevent potentially further loss of life or to refuse and resist Hitler's demands at the possible cost of hundreds of thousands of soldiers' lives.

I found this movie similar to other well-made historical dramas. High quality work, though one that simply made me more interested in a well-done documentary or even book on the same subject. I am far from an expert of that time period in British history, but I knew enough about Churchill in general and the state of World War II at the time to know the basic outcome of the story. I also knew enough to not see anything overly revelatory about Churchill, the British Parliament, and even the British people. And this is the one thing that I wish to gain from any piece of history, be is dramatization or documentary - the revelation of new facts and overlooked, important pieces to the overall puzzle. I honestly can't say that Darkest Hour gave me enough of these things to feel completely satisfying.

That said, the movie is done exceptionally well. Unsurprisingly, Gary Oldman is phenomenal as Winston Churchill, and the rest of the cast is as first-rate as one would expect from such an accomplished group of professional British actors. I was particularly impressed with Australian genius Ben Mendelsohn's turn as King George VI. Beyond the acting, the other technical aspects of the movie are top-notch, with the costumes and set designs offering a cohesively dark and shadowy version of 1940 London. There is also some creative cinematography, including a few well-placed "bird's eye" shots, looking down on the denizens below and panning down or up, depending on the scene's requirements. These offered some welcome visual dynamism in what is often a very literally dark film, filled with shadows and the blacks, browns, and grey tweeds associated with London's buildings and its people's fashions.

The meant-to-be-rousing, climactic "subway scene." This is
when a doubtful Churchill finds support among the commoners
through uplifting exchanges. It never really happened.
This was easily one of the most "British" movies I've seen in some time. Obviously, the subject matter makes it such, but it goes a bit beyond simply taking place in England and focusing on one of that country's most famous people of the last 100 years. Darkest Hour is also packed with figures who embody some of the most "English" mannerisms, with plenty of stuffy aristocrats and royalty hemming and hawing about, hands openly clutching their jacket lapels as a show of displeasure at the rather uncouth Winston Churchill (though his brand of "uncouth" is rather tame by most modern standards). And nearly all the women in the picture are rather typically prim and proper types, sporting stiff backs and polished accents.

Then there's the climactic "subway ride" scene towards the end, which a bit of research has told me was completely fictional. In this scene, a tortured Churchill condescends to ride the subway and do an informal poll of "real" Londoners about the possibility of surrender. As one can imagine, the entire car responds in the universal and rousing negative, which the films presents as the final push that Churchill needs to refuse the Nazis demands that he and Britain surrender. This is clearly meant to be this movie's William Wallace, Braveheart "Freedom!" moment. In other words, crowd-pleasing propaganda which makes up an entire sequence and is suggesting that it might be factual. Such sneakiness bothers me, especially when it is as heavy-handed as the subway scene was here.

This movie is likely to end up in the same place as 2010's The King's Speech - a well-made, well-acted British historical drama that garners plenty of well-earned praise in its year of release, but ultimately one which will be relatively forgotten within a few years. Worth seeing, but not necessarily one which will be repeatedly studied or enjoyed upon multiple viewings.

In terms of its chances at Best Picture, I would be absolutely stunned if it won. Several other contenders were more daring, if not as refined as Darkest Hour

Sunday, February 11, 2018

New-ish Releases: Good Time (2017); The Great Wall (2016)

Good Time (2017)

Directors: Benny and Josh Safdie

A frenetic, wild ride that captures a crazy day in the life of a native, desperate New Yorker whose bad decisions collide with insane situations at a dizzying rate.

In an extremely tense 100 minutes, we follow Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) after a bungled bank robbery he pulls with his mentally challenged brother, Nick (co-writer and co-director Benny Safdie). Though Connie manages to elude the police, the ever-confused Benny is captured and sent to jail. Connie, a consummate fast-talker and short-term thinker, tries to call in every favor and use any idea he can to get his challenged brother out of jail. As one plan of action after another either goes completely wrong or creates new problems, Connie grows more and more desperate, finding himself zipping all over Queens, his sole purpose to free the helpless Benny.

Good Time is, while bearing similarities to a few other films, one of the most unique heist movies I've ever seen. Sure, there have been bank robbery movies where things go comically wrong at every turn, a la Quick Change and others, and there have been dozens and dozens of New York crime stories.
There have also been plenty of films focusing on would-be criminals too dumb or myopic to get out of their own way, with Martin Scorsese's classics arguably being the best among them. But Good Time somehow conveys the sweaty, off-the-rails insanity of such situations as authentically as I've ever seen. It's not that anything in the story is implausible. Quite the contrary. Almost all of us have met a few people who were like Connie: clearly intelligent to a degree, but whose mental faculties are all steered towards the wrong objectives. In Connie's case, it's nabbing short-term gains at the expense of virtually anything else. In real life, it can be depressingly tragic; in a film, though, it can actually be engaging and even entertaining at times. Such is the case in Good Time.

The acting is amazing in this movie. Like most, I only really knew Robert Pattinson from trailers for the laughable Twilight series of films, a young-adult-oriented fantasy/horror series in which Pattinson played the main role of a dreamy vampire. After seeing him play Connie in Good Time, though, it is very clear that this guy can act. He basically carries the entire movie with his feverish energy and ability to downshift into a scuzzier version of a silver-tongued devil when the situation demands it. The several supporting cast members are all perfect, as well, only adding to the highly palpable atmosphere of the film.

I've now heard that the co-writers and co-directors, the Safdie brothers, have established a solid reputation in their relatively short resume. I'll be keeping an eye out to see what they do next, as Good Time lived up to its quiet but solid critical acclaim.


The Great Wall (2016)

Director: Yimou Zhang

A decent enough, fun action/adventure movie that got a bit of a bad wrap upon its release a year ago.

The movie mostly follows a pair of mercenaries from Western Europe - William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) - who were part of a band out to find the rumored Chinese "black powder" (gunpowder in modern parlance) and buy, beg, or steal it back to their bidders back in the West. William and Tovar's band is harried by local bandits, and then attacked by some strange creature at night, leaving only the two of them alive. They are then soon taken as prisoners by the Chinese army at their astonishingly impressive Great Wall. There, William and Tovar learn that the Wall and the impressively skilled and disciplined army stationed there are the major line of defense against a horde of monsters. These monsters - Tao Tie, in Chinese - have a sort of hive-mind intelligence governed by a queen. They are eerily cunning, and they attack in calculated waves against the Wall's forces of male and female warriors, who are divided into specialized units to maximize their differing abilities. As William watches the Chinese fight for the lives of their civilization, he must decide whether he is more interested in the profit he can make from smuggling out the highly-coveted black powder or in putting his preternatural skills as an archer to use in assisting the Chinese against the monstrous Tao Tie.

For what it is, this movie was pretty fun. I honestly put it on with the plan of giving it 15 or 20 minutes to catch my interest. It did, and it held it all the way through to the end. It is not especially creative in terms of overall narrative or character depth, to be sure, but it is a fairly entertaining, visually lush and dazzling fantasy action-adventure tale, as you might expect from Yimou Zhang. While the fight choreography isn't on par with the best martial arts flicks, the set pieces, costumes, and general action scene set-ups are enjoyably creative and sights to behold. Not the best I've ever seen, but engaging if you're in the mood for such things. There was also some novelty in how the Chinese defense force is organized into its various fighting units, using different, brightly colored uniforms to differentiate each unit.

The acting? Meh. Surprisingly, Matt Damon does fine, even with the faux Irish/English/Unplaceable accent that he's putting on. He didn't bother me one bit, and I thought he was solid. His fellow Westerner Pedro Pascal also does well. Willem Dafoe, whom I absolutely love, feels rather out of place as the shifty hangabout Ballard. Female lead Tian Jing seems fine, especially when she is able to work in her native language of Chinese. When delivering her English lines, though, she seems uncomfortable, as if she's reciting phonetically-memorized scripts rather than using natural fluency (I feel confident assessing this, given that I am actually a professional English as a Second Language instructor who has worked with literally hundreds of Chinese-speakers of every possible level). That said, my hat is off for doing as well as she does, as acting in a language not ones native tongue must be exceedingly challenging.

William, alongside several of the higher-ranking members of
the Wall's impressive defense force. Rather than a "white
savior," Damon's character is much more of an accidental
hero who assists rather than outright saves the local warriors.
Some of you may remember that when The Great Wall was released in late 2016/early 2017, it got blasted pretty hard and was considered a "bust" at the box office. Firstly, it should be noted that it was really only a "bomb" in the United States, where is pulled in just over $45 million. That is a rather low total for such a large-scale, big-budget spectacle film, but it should be noted that the cinema universe does not revolve solely around the U.S. anymore. The movie actually made over $330 million worldwide, which was more than double its budget. In that respect, it did well enough, if not exactly Marvel Cinematic Universe or James Cameron type levels of profit.

So why did it do so "poorly" in the U.S.? The main reason may be the one that you recall the movie for - the "whitewashing" accusations. This is something that Hollywood has certainly been guilty of, without question - casting a white actor in a "savior" role, especially when the character he is playing is meant to be a person of color. This was no doubt the case in recent movies like The Prince of Persia, Gods of Egypt, and others. However, I think this accusation was applied incorrectly to The Great Wall. If one watches the movie, it's clear that Matt Damon's character is meant as the "outsider" - which is a tried and true method for storytelling. His being a white man makes perfect sense in the story, and is hardly a case of white washing. One could perhaps argue that he is placed in a "savior" role for the sake of Western audiences, but I would also point out that he only "saves the day" right alongside his female Chinese general Lin Mae (played by Tian Jing). So I have to feel that the harsh criticism levied upon the movie was mostly unfounded.

I am comfortable in recommending this movie to those who want a fairly light, fun, and yes, culturally inclusive movie that has a bunch of kick-ass warriors fighting off hordes of reptilian monsters. Simply the stuff of fun, fantasy, popcorn flicks. No more, no less. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

New Release! The Shape of Water (2017)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Arguably the best of the brilliant film fantasist Guillermo del Toro's several excellent movies.

Mexican director del Toro is an unapologetic fan of fantasy and horror films, and his movies have always worn this passion on their sleeves. From his debut film Cronos, through the much-heralded Pan's Labrynth, and even his lighter fare like Hellboy and Pacific Rim, he has always shown to be a master of blending visual spectacle with genuine heart. The Shape of Water is a culmination of nearly all of his greatest strengths.

The movie takes place in 1962, set to the backdrop of a United States in which hope still abounds for many to achieve the "American Dream" of upward mobility and consumer comforts. The Cold War is in full swing, but the U.S. is working exceptionally hard to craft and sell a utopian image to itself. Unfortunately for some, this image does not include equality for anyone outside of the WASP template. Within this atmosphere, we meet Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who works at a secret government installation in Baltimore. One day, a rather severe government agent, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives with a bizarre, humanoid, amphibious creature in captivity. In the course of her cleaning duties, Elisa grows fascinated with the creature, and she eventually forms an unspoken bond of trust with it, a trust which evolves further into physical and emotional attraction. All of this comes under intense pressure when Col. Strickland, a brutal authoritarian type who only sees the creature as a monster to be exploited for any scientific advantages it's body can convey to his country, makes moves to kill and dissect the creature. This springs Elisa into action, and along with several other marginalized friends, she contrives an escape plan for the inhuman obejct of her affections.

The movie is a wonderfully brilliant and uniquely heartfelt take on the classic monster movies of the 1940s and 1950s, most notably the classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon. What del Toro lovingly does, though, is go far beyond merely updating the same old story. Instead, he uses the basic element of the creature to tell a story of marginalized peoples during a time in U.S. history when homogeneity was a major part of a utopian ideal. Yes, an amphibious being from the jungles of South America is a highly fantastical proxy for people overlooked and cast aside due to their race, disabilities, or sexual orientation, but it serves as a perfect conduit for del Toro's cinematic brilliance, especially in terms of visuals. Just as he's done in his earlier movies, del Toro makes full use of the wide and beautiful color palattes at his disposal, crafting a movie that is marvelous to look upon. And many of the more imaginative sequences have the dreamlike quality that only movies can accomplish.

Beyond the stunning visuals, there is a beautifully poetic and romantic dark fairy tale at work in this movie. Some will certainly find it odd, if not grotesque, in certain ways. If one does see it as a fairy tale, though, it becomes much easier to accept the bizarre elements of the story, including the sexual ones. It is not often that I pull for a happy ending to movies, since they are nearly always done for reasons of pure sentimental crowd-pleasing. In this movie, though, I truly was hoping that the characters would find the happiness and freedom which they sought. For a somewhat cynical movie-goer like me, who tends to prefer downer endings in general, this is saying something.

As her expressive face often shows, Elisa is possessed of an
iron bravery and boldness that speaks far louder than her
missing voice ever could.
If you know anything about the cast, then it should be no surprise that the acting is outstanding. Sally Hawkins pulls off the amazing feat of illustrating a range of emotions for a character bereft of speech. Using her highly expressive face and wonderful body language, Elisa's love, pain, and longing are as clear as if she were giving articulate, empassioned speeches for the film's length. The nemesis in the film is played to perfection by the ever-intense Michael Shannon. I really would like to see Shannon cast in different roles more often, but there is a reason that he is called upon to play characters such as the imposing Col. Strickland - he's frighteningly good at it. There are also award-winners at nearly every turn, with Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer delivering just the kind of high-quality performances that you would expect.

This is all not to say that I found everything in the movie great. While some of the humor is quite good, a few gags don't quite hit. More than this, though, is that I found the story a bit heavy-handed and obvious in how it presented certain characters as being social misfits. Elisa's gay neighbor and her African-American coworker face the discrimination that was certainly typical of the day, but del Toro doesn't really present their plights in subtle or creative ways. For a movie that is bursting with vibrancy in so many ways, it would have been nice to see a little more novelty or at least deftness in the depictions of those discriminated against.

This was the fifth of the nine Oscar Best Picture nominees that I've now seen. While I still have several more to take in, this one is definitely very high in the running for the award. Though not flawless, it demonstrates the dazzling artistry and particular magic that can be accomplished in no other media than film.