Sunday, April 30, 2017

Before I Die #600: Citizenfour (2014)

This is the 600th movie that I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 

Director: Laura Poitras

Snowden explains some of his massive secrets to journalist
Glenn Greenwald. The immensity of Snowden's story builds
as the documentary progresses, even if some of the techno-
jargon can be a bit of barrier at times.
An incredible documentary that has the kind of first-hand, in-the-moment access that very few documentaries capture. Of course, the larger issue is the still-highly-relevent subject of U.S. government surveillance of its citizens and the world at large.

Before watching this, I had only a passing knowledge of the entire Edward Snowden affair. I knew he was a whistleblower on the National Security Agency (NSA), that he had revealed just how deeply into citizens' information trails the NSA had been digging, and that he has since been on the run from extradition.

This movie offers an incredibly and possibly unprecedented first-hand, real-time look at a person blowing the whistle on a massive system which he feels is unethical. Imagine if we had actual footage of Woodward interviewing Deepthroat? Or live film of the first time Jeffrey Wigand talked with people from 60 minutes about his inside knowledge of the Phillip Morris tobacco company? Well that's what we get with Citizenfour, in a hotel room where Snowden was holed up and beginning to share his top-secret knowledge to documentarian Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greewald, among a few others. This aspect of the movie alone makes it rather gripping, given how personal privacy and security are still, and will continue to be, highly relevent topics.

I must say, however, that director Poitras could have done a better job helping out some of us lay-people a bit more. The film gives some rudimentary information about Snowden, his job, and the other people involved, but it doesn't offer enough. I understand that many of the great documentaries simply let their human subjects speak for themselves, with little to no interference from the filmmakers. However, this should not be the case when the subject matter is a bit more arcane or technical. Such is the case with this film, which covers topics of cryptography, technology of the highest order, and much of the jargon that goes along with such heady topics. We viewers are offered very little in the way of explanations or definitions of some of the slang which Snowden and even the reporting journalists know and understand. On top of that, we get email exchanges between Snowden and Poitras, some of which are relatively clear and engaging, but others of which are difficult ot decipher. I seem to recall that one of the criticisms of this movie when it was released was a sense of self-importance on the part of the filmmakers, and I can see what those critics meant. It can occassionally seem as if Poitras assumes that viewers should already be aware of and familiar with her plight and the issues of privacy and security which Snowden is dealing with. The result is that some aspects of the movie can be vague and frustrating.

Still, it is easy to see the struggle that Snowden is going through. He is still and will probably always be a controversial figure. However, when one watches this movie, one cannot doubt that he knew full well what he was giving up by sharing his secrets with the world. His entire life was turned upside down. He knew it would happen, but his ethics compelled him to action. Seeing this unfold with such grand consequences is a very rare thing, and it is one that is worth watching for everyone.

That's 600 movies down. Only 587 more to go before I can die. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Retro Trio: Eastern Promises (2007); Repo Man (1984); They Live (1988)

So you think you've had a stressful promotion interview or
two in your day? They're nothing compared to what Nikolai
goes through in the ultra-ruthless world of the Russian mob.
Eastern Promises (2007)

Director: David Cronenberg

First time I had watched this one since it was out in theaters. Still a really tight, harrowing piece of crime cinema, though not one that offers viewers any convenient answers about the problems of deep-seeded and systemic criminality and violence.

The story takes place in London, where local nurse Anna (Naomi Watts) has to assist in an emergency birth of a child born by an abused 15-year old girl from Russia.The mother dies giving birth, but she leaves behind a diary in which she details the horrors of her life in London. Being the child of Russian immigrants, Anna takes the diary to her mother and uncle. As Anna learns more about the men who were responsible for the girl's death, she becomes partially involved in a vicious power struggle within a local sect of the Russian mafia. The man with whom she has the most contact is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a chauffeur to the local mob leader's son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Nikolai is a quiet but intense and intimidating presence who seems to have far more knowledge and ability than he lets on as a mere driver and sometimes-assistant in the mob's criminal dealings. By interacting with Nikolai and his bosses, Anna unwittingly and rather quickly finds the lives of herself, the newborn baby, and her relatives are all in serious danger.

Eastern Promises was David Cronenberg's next film after 2005's  A History of Violence, and the two make for excellent companion pieces. Aside from both starring Viggo Mortensen, both are skilled, unflinching looks at the nature of violence and how it can manifest itself in individuals and cultures. The differences between the two lie mostly in the type of general story and the particular focus of each. The former film looked at one man's deeply buried violent past and nature, while the latter examines a type of violence that runs throughout an entire cultural group and is deeply enough embedded to be woven into other, more accepted traditions and rituals.

In terms of narrative, Eastern Promises uses suspense as a major device, with the lives of Anna, the newborn baby, and Anna's family all at stake as the Russian mob slowly closes in. There is also the element of mystery thrown in, as the Nikolai character is slowly revealed to be more than a stoic, detached chauffeur. These alone make the movie strong enough. Added to all of this, though, is the same bold and brutal depiction of violence which Cronenberg employed in A History of Violence. While I wouldn't say the movie is oozing violence, there are a handful of scenes that are violent, some of them extremely so. And Cronenberg strips away any pretense at glamorizing the brutality. This is an approach which I appreciate in movies such as this, as it drives home the point that nothing that these people are doing should in any way be seen as anything but horrendous. Cinematically, it also adds to the tension of the movie, as we understand the threat that characters like Anna are under.

This movie is one of many that has made me a tremendous fan of Viggo Mortensen, who does a brilliant job here. He and Cronenberg seem to make excellent collaborators, and I hope they can find another story strong enough to pair themselves up again in the future.

One of the most verbose movie
posters I've ever seen. Ironic, given
how Otto is not exactly a young man
of letters, shall we say.
Repo Man (1984)

Director: Alex Cox

I didn't first see this movie until around 2005, and I enjoyed it. This second viewing confirmed my enjoyment, and it confirmed to me why this movie is still a cult classic.

Emilio Estevez plays Otto, an 18-year old punk rocker who is disgusted by his dull suburban life. He quits his job at a supermarket and is soon taken into the car repossession business by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a veteran of the trade. Otto's fellow repo men are all social misfits of one form or another, each with his own bizarre code of independence and rebellion. Otto eventually gets mixed up with a strange maelstrom of activity surrounding a Chevy Malibu housing a radioactive alien in its trunk. Mysterious secret operatives are involved, and Otto's fellow repo men get involved in the bizarre pursuit.

The movie is an oddity that could only have come from the middle of the Reagan-era United States, made all the more odd by the fact that it still holds up as a great cult movie, even in 2017. English writer and director Alex Cox (it's always foreigners who nail the American tale in movies) crafted an oft-times hilarious take on American rebellion in the face of and encroaching popular culture of conformity. Otto is a straight up punk-rocker - a kid who has no idea what he wants but knows that he hates nearly everything about his life and the world around him. When he meets a gaggle of curmudgeonly rebels in the repossession business, their interactions are downright hilarious at times. While all of the repo men are great characters, legend Harry Dean Stanton takes the cake as Bud. Bud is a true, died-in-the-wool libertarian who thinks any real American can and should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, put life in a headlock, and give the middle finger to anyone who thinks otherwise. One of his many gems is his response to Otto pointing out that Russians don't pay for anything: "All free? Free my ass," replies Bud, "What are you, a fuckin' commie? Huh?...Well, you better not be. I don't want no commies in my car...No Christians, either." Kind of says it all, right there, really.

Sure, the story, characters, dialogue, and acting can sometimes be a little frayed around the edges, but those don't overpower the gonzo, in-your-face fun of this movie. With it's rebel attitude and d.i.y. approach to characters and dialogue, it conveys a punk rock perspective that is rarely matched. Interestingly enough, the actual cinematography is high quality, which makes the movie generally pleasing to take in. While it's not a movie I need to watch over and over, it's a great little work of its time that holds up rather well.

They Live (1988)

Director: John Carpenter

Talk about a great premise, with some great moments, dragged down by some questionable elements and a limited budget.

In They Live, Carpenter adapted the Ray Nelson short story "Three O'Clock in the Morning" into a solid cult movie. The tale follows Nada ("Rowdy" Roddy Piper), an out-of-work drifter who comes across a secret resistance movement fighting against an unseen cabal of aliens who use subliminal messaging to keep humanity locked in a state of consumption and laze. Once Nada accidentally gets a hold of specially-made sunglasses which allow him to see the ghoulish aliens, he has to flee and attempt to convince people to join him in resisting their plot.

Like a few other Carpenter movies, They Live is a perfect example of a mediocre movie that would have made a fantastic TV episode of The Twilight Zone. Perhaps with a better budget and a stronger script, it could have been a great 90-minute movie. As it was, though, some sharp editing could have pared it down to a brilliant 50-minute show. There is some great commentary on rampant consumerism driven by economic elites, which is as relevant now as it was at the height of Reagan-era excess. And the science-fiction devices work fairly well, with even the clearly-underbudgeted makeup effects creating the necessary creepiness. And the movie does provide us with a couple of classic one-liners, including the gem "I've come to kick ass and chew bubblegum...and I'm all out of bubblegum."

What keeps the movie from being all it could have been comes down to two things, really. One is several sluggish, filler-type sequences that gobble up far more screen time than necessary. Most egregious is the back alley fistfight between Nada and Frank (played by the ever-solid Keith David). The pro wrestling-style brawl goes on for over five minutes, but it feels like three or four times that. Add in that it is far from essential to the primary plot, and you get a nasty speed bump in the middle of what is occasionally a well-paced movie. The second issue is that the script simply isn't terribly creative or tight. The brilliant premise and basic framework aside, there just aren't many verbal exchanges or expositions that are terribly compelling or memorable. Equally dubious are some of the threads that are meant to tie the story together, which can be frayed in more than one part of the film.

They Live is a fun little slice of 1980s dystopian social commentary, to be sure. It's not much of a time commitment at right around 90 minutes, so it's worth checking out for anyone who enjoys a clever sci-fi premise, even if the technical merits of the movie are lacking in several aspects. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Documentary Fest: Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth (2013); OJ: Made in America (2016)

Some of the best moments are when Tyson is recounting his
moments as a boxer- the profession in which he achieved
historic greatness.
Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth (2013)

Director: Spike Lee

OK, so technically this isn't a "documentary," but I don't often review recordings of Broadway shows. This category seems to fit as well as any.

Not long ago, I did post on the documentary Tyson, which was released a couple of years before The Undisputed Truth. In that post, I describe how Tyson has always been a  rather fascinating figure to me, as an unstoppable boxing force of nature when I was a kid, right up through all of the troubling and bizarre trials and tribulations that would dog him for the decades following his loss of the heavyweight title. So I was surprised that it took me so long to get around to watching the one-man show that he put on several years ago on Broadway.

The Undisputed Truth can be a somewhat strange viewing experience that is likely to be enjoyable for fans and supporter of Tyson but probably won't win over any new supporters. In fact, there are some segments of the show that emphasize some of the less appealing aspects of Tyson's nature which he seems to still harbor.

The show is built around Tyson giving his autobiography while on stage, with visual images projected behind him onto a large screen. He start with his birth and covers many of the major turning points of his life, both in his historic boxing career and in his infamous and well-documented
When Tyson gets humorous, such as when he recounts his
first meeting with a very young Brad Pitt, the comedy some-
times gets unintentionally awkward.
personal struggles. For much of the show, Tyson doesn't lay blame for his failings anywhere but with himself. There are, however, some moments when he intentionally lapses back into the ultra-macho, street fighter mentality when recounting more barbaric encounters like his admittedlly humorous run-ins with Mitch "Blood" Green. Green was a former heavyweight fighter and notorious meat-head whom Tyson pummeled both inside the ring and outside of the ring, the latter tale is one which Tyson clearly relishes in telling. It's one of a few stories that are meant for pure comic effect, and it does work to an extent. There are times, though, when the humor didn't hit, at least not with me. When he tells of seeing his ex-wife Robin Givens riding around with a very young, up-and-coming actor named Brad Pitt and says that he didn't know whether "to fuck him or fight him," it smacks of the type of unsavory machismo that doesn't appeal to me. In moments like this, he was clearly playing to his crowd, which was composed of no small amount of NYC locals who are obviously in his corner.

Many other segments of the show are more serious in tone, as Tyson speaks of his rape conviction and the accidental, freak death of his young daughter. During these moments, there is a vulnerability to the man that is what has often made him a deeper and sometimes more tragic figure than many people have admitted. Anyone who has really listened to Mike Tyson, going back many years, could see that there was more to him than just a thug who was one of the greatest boxers of all time. Amid the mental chaos that he experienced (he has long since admitted suffering from clinical mental disorders) was an intelligent and often even thoughtful and empathetic person. These things can and do shine through at times, including in this one-man show.

While I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, those with the slightest curiosity about Tyson will likely find something of interest in the performance.

O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Director: Ezra Edelman

Incredibly brilliant, deeply disturbing, and immensely informative. These are what documentaries can be, when done with a broad persepctive, in skilled hands.

Like many, when I heard about this documentary, I presumed that it was another barely-necessary rehashing of one of the most infamous celebrity court cases in the history of the United States. I expected a simple rundown of the murder case, done in an almost Law & Order style summary palatable for the morbidly curious. What we all got, though, is an in-depth study of the making of a celebrity who put his immense charisma and skills as an athlete to his own purpose of transcending race and repressing his own background. It also ties all of this together with the larger and vastly more uncomfortable topic of race relations in the United States, in Los Angeles in particular.

At this point, any American over the age of twenty knows the basic O.J. Simpson story. He was a superstar athlete who achieved phenomenal glory on the football field in the 1960s and '70s. He also expanded into being a highly successful endorser of various big-name products, and even had a notable acting career. In 1994, though, he was arrested for the brutal murder of his separated wife and her then-boyfriend. O.J. would go through a bizarre apprehension and trial, which resulted in his acquittal, despite the fact that evidence strongly suggested his guilt. He went free, but his life would spiral in odd ways, until he was again arrested in 2007 for a gang-style show of strength aimed at reclaiming sporting memorabilia which he believed to have been stolen from him. He currently remains behind bars.

Those are the bare bones of the tale, and it's one that has been recapped hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the last decade. What director Ezra Edelman did with O.J.: Made In America was to look at the larger picture surrounding such a singularly tragic story. While weaker documentaries work hard to paint a very particular and often biased picture based on the director's subjective vision, the very best documentaries reveal truths which are much more difficult to argue against. Edelman crafted an excellent film that reveals much about American society and the nature of especially narcissistic and self-obsessed individuals. The focus begins on Simpson at the University of Southern California (USC), where he first attained national stardom as an award-winning running back for their powerhouse football team. Then we shift back briefly to Simpson's childhood in Oakland, where he grew up impoverished in an all-black neighborhood. From that moment, the film shifts back and forth, between O.J.'s rise to and through superstardom and the larger conflicts between the poor black community in Los Angeles and the L.A. Police Department. As one gains a larger understanding of that societal conflict, the seemingly illogical attitudes of certain groups during and after the murder trial become far more comprehensible.

Simpson and his attornies react to the verdict that polarized
the nation like few, if any, ever have. The full context around
the decision and reactions offers a fascinating and
disturbing look at the darker aspects of the American soul
and the human condition.
Beyond the most important facts that the film illuminates about race in the U.S. is the fascinating look into the nature of celebrity and narcissism. A theme throughout the entire series is that Simpson was, from an early age, virtually obsessed with appealing to the widest possible audience in order to attain and maintain fame. Seemingly born with dazzling charisma to go along with his physical gifts as an athlete, he was able to charm millions and millions of people not only through his sports and acting careers, but even through and after the horror that was the double murder of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman. Hearing the testimony of Simpson's former friends and associates is highly compelling, if ultimately greatly disturbing. We are allowed insight into the nature of a diabolical character - one who quite literally was so charming that he could get away with murder. And we are not allowed the comfort of forgetting just how horrendous the murder was, with the crime scene photos shown repeatedly. This decision by Edelmen feels completely appropriate, lest we viewers lose sight of the real loss among the peculiar and morbidly fascinating characters that Simpson morphed from and into.

O.J.: Made in America is no small viewing chore. Whereas most of the films in ESPN's excellent 30 for 30 series run between 60 and 90 minutes, this one was released as five separate episodes, clocking in at a grand total of seven-and-a-half hours. Honestly, though, I was hypnotized by it. There wasn't a single aspect or segment of the film that dragged or seemed superfluous. Anyone who enjoys well-done documentaries, even ones that cover unsavory topics, would do well to take this one in. It's a masterpiece. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Before I Die #599: Manhunter (1986)

This is the 599th movie that I've now seen out of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.

Director: Michael Mann

A really interesting and compelling, if noticeably flawed, movie that was ahead of its time in several ways.

Nearly everyone over the age of 25, and an awful lot of people younger than that, are aware that Silence of the Lambs was the brilliant, ground-breaking psychological thriller film that brought the character Hannibal Lecter to a massively wide audience back in 1991. It also spawned a number of sequels, and even the modern, critically-acclaimed TV series Hannibal. Far less known is that Silence of the Lambs was not the first Hannibal Lecter film. Five years prior to Jonathon Demme's amazing take on Thomas Harris's novel, director Michael Mann headed up a film adaptation of the first "Lecter" novel, Red Dragon, but changed the name to Manhunter. This was all news to me until several years ago, when I was perusing movie lists. When I considered how wildly successful the Lecter character would become, and how skilled a director Michael Mann is, I wondered just how this movie isn't better known.

The movie is not dissimilar in general structure to Silence of the Lambs. F.B.I. investigator Will Graham (William Peterson) is called back from convalescence to help the Bureau track down a serial killer known as "The Tooth Fairy." Graham reluctantly accepts and begins the process of profiling the killer. Graham's method involves trying to think like the killers he tracks, which at times leaves him in disturbed mental states. While on the trail of the Tooth Fairy, he hits a roadblock and is forced to consult with the last serial killer whom he had captured, Doctor Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecktor (the spelling was changed for this movie), played by Bryan Cox. As Graham immerses himself deeper and deeper into the case, he grows more disturbed and erratic. As the clock ticks on the Tooth Fairy's next kill, Graham walks an ever-shakier tightrope of sanity.

In terms of its blend of ultra-dark subject matter with a sleek aesthetic, this movie was ahead of the curve. Sure, the twisted minds and worlds or serial killers and psychopaths had been done well a few times before, with movies like Blow Up, Taxi Driver, and even others like Peeping Tom or the seminal Psycho from all the way back in 1960. What Michael Mann did, though, was to apply his particular cinematic vision to such a tale - a look that he had introduced and honed on the hit TV show Miami Vice, which was at its absolute peak when Manhunter came out in 1986. To this day, many of the shots and sequences are stunning, even if there is a glossy, artificial appearance to more than a few of them. It was a combination of elements unlike anything else I can recall from the period.

One of the many stunning, carefully framed shots in the movie.
Such visual care shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with
Mann's other films like
Heat or The Insider.
The visionary elements are quite clear in the movie, as are the flaws. There is the aforementioned artificiality to certain scenes. There are also more than a few slow-motion action sequences, a technique which I grew tired of long ago. The other awkward element is the the way that the Will Graham character "narrates" his projections into the mind of the Tooth Fairy. As much as I feel that voice-over narration is a cinematic crutch, it probably would have been less clumsy than what Mann decided to do, which seems overly stagey.

Manhunter is a great example of a greatly flawed but ultimately visionary film. It can still be appreciated for the bold subject matter and the psychological complexity of its main characters, to be sure. However, it's impossible to ignore how certain visual and narrative elements have aged very poorly. I am actually curious to now watch the more recent version of this story - the 2002 movie Red Dragon. I've never seen it, but it has a great cast and some solid reviews. I suspect that the face lift that the more recent creators gave the story could be of great benefit. I'm sure I'll have that review up before too long.

That's 599 movies down. Only 588 to go before I can die. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Harry Potter Series, Part 2: Order of the Phoenix through the Deathly Hallows

This is the second part of my reviews of the entire eight-film series of Harry Potter adaptation from the novels by J.K. Rowling. The first part, covering the first four movies, is here.
Harry gets worked over by Dolores Umbridge, one of the most
detestable, of not exactly horrific, adversaries Potter and his
pals face off in the series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Director: David Yates

Potter's fifth year was his roughest yet. Still recovering from seeing a fellow Hogwart's schoolmate killed in front of him by Voldemort himself, Harry now must deal with other threats. Hogwart's is gradually taken over by an authoritarian bureaucrat who wishes to stifle the merest suggestion that Voldemort exists, which puts Potter, his friends, and the entire wizarding community in grave peril.

This fifth movie is another strong one, though still not quite as good as Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban. It features a thoroughly dislikable, though rather different, nemesis for Harry in the form of Dolores Umbridge, the quietly sadistic, ultra-conservative Ministry of Magic employee who slowly but surely takes over the school. In my view, she is the most despicable character in the entire series, due to the fact that she is not truly "evil," but rather that equally dangerous type of person who denies their worst traits by doubling down on a rules and order. This does offer no small satisfaction when she gets her comeuppance, to be sure.

The other elements of the movie are on par with Goblet of Fire - a plot that is entertaining and fast-paced, and that holds up well enough if you don't start looking too closely at it (this is always the case with the Harry Potter series, both books and movies). The visuals and effects are as good as any thus far, including some striking set pieces and costumes. As has been the case for the whole series, the themes and tones get a bit darker and more mature, with this film including more notable loss for Harry. It also features him grappling with exactly who he is and facing some of the more negative, destructive aspects of his personality. As a side note, I also enjoy that we are finally let in on a little more history of Severus Snape, one of the most complex and compelling characters in the entire Potter series.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Director: David Yates

Year six and Harry's penultimate year at Hogwart's is hardly much fun anymore. Although it is now clear to the wizarding world that Voldemort has truly returned, vindicating Harry, Potter and his friends now face the encroaching threat of Voldemort and his sinister Death Eaters. These dark forces begin to kill and attack anyone they deem a threat, including Hogwart's and its esteemed and powerful headmaster, Dumbledor. In the middle of this, Dumbledor enlists Harry to ferret out of a returned professor some key information about Voldemort's past - information which they may be able to use to put a true end to the malevolent wizard.

At this point, the fun and games are essentially over for Harry and his pals. The darker elements that have been encroaching on their world since The Prisoner of Azkaban are now in full attack mode, and the tone and plot reflect it. The dialogue, story, character development, and even set designs reflect the gravity and even terror at work at this point in the epic story. While it may not be the stuff of highly sophisticated movie-making, it is rather impressive for a "family" movie to have transformed its quality so dramatically. Yes, there is still an entertaining little quidditch match and a silly little sub-plot involving Ron's budding romance(s), but the movie never wanders far from the sinister elements lurking around every corner. Whether it's a fiery, destructive attack on the humble home of the Weasleys or the grim, fatalistic desperation around Draco Malfoy, there is less buoyancy in this film than in any previous Potter entry.

Personally, though, I think that all of these elements make it a better movie. After several movies that set up just how magical and valuable the wizarding world is to admirable people like Harry and his friends, the attacks unleashed in this movie have more power. If there is any notable weakness, it is that, at this point in the series, the film cannot stand alone. Any viewer who hasn't seen most or all of the previous movies will be missing out on so many backstories that the movie will be confusing at best and incomprehensible at worst.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione are joined by house elf Dobby and
a troll for a daring break in at Gringott's bank. It's one of a few
action scenes that come between several overlong,
slower scenes that felt a bit like busy work. 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010)

Director: David Yates

School is out at this point. In the wake of Voldemort and his Death Eaters' direct attacks on their enemies in the magical community, including their killing of Dumbledore, Harry Potter cannot afford to return to Hogwarts for his seventh and final year. Instead, he goes on the run with Hermione and Ron in order to find several magical items which will help them defeat the seemingly-invincible Dark Lord. The three are forced to stay light and mobile, as they desperately search for the items, often with little or no information to go on.

Of the entire Potter series, this is the lone movie that feels overly padded with unnecessary or drawn-out scenes. The filmmakers were, admittedly, in a somewhat tough spot. Author J.K. Rowling's final book in the series was a massive one, making a single movie adaptation virtually impossible (unless they wanted to make a four-hour film). So they opted to divide it into two movies. This was understandable, but the result is that Part 1 consists far more of buildup, plot points that go mostly unresolved, and several scenes which take the already-somber and relatively slow-paced movie and drag it out even more. To be sure, there are still the hallmark revelations and plot elements that make the story compelling, but the nearly two-and-a-half hour film could probably have been a good 15 to 20 minutes shorter and been the better for it.

Perhaps the standout contribution of this episode is the animated sequence that tells the story of the titular ''Deathly Hallows," magical items of lore that play a significant part in the final chapter of the epic series. The tale is visualized using computer-generated silhouettes, which creates a brilliant narrative and visual effect unlike any other in this special-effects-heavy series. Generally, though, this movie is really only a satisfying when you have Part 2 ready to fire up immediately after the credits roll. And I did...

In the final film, the fun and games are a thing of the past as
the little kids we first saw a decade earlier are now locked
in a deadly war with Voldemort's forces of evil.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)

Director: David Yates

And so the decade-long, eight-film adaptation of the most successful children's book series in history ends. Well, they did it justice.

It's been long enough since I've read the final book (roughly seven or eight years ago) that I didn't remember a great many details of final chapter in the series. This probably aided my enjoyment of the movie. This final movie, when viewed shortly after the slightly hobbled previous film, makes up for that earlier effort's shortcomings

The final chapter sees Harry, Ron, and Hermione tracking down the final horcruxes that house Voldemort's soul and using them in a grand final battle between the "good" and "evil" forces in the wizarding world. Harry, obviously, sides with the group who feel that their abilities do not and should not raise them above "muggles," or normal, non-magical folk, while Voldemort and his allies seek to dominate the normal human world and eradicate any sympathizing magicians.

The scale in this final movie is understandably much larger than the earlier ones, and it is handled very well. Whereas Deathly Hallows, Part 1 was bogged down in many places, Part 2 has more than enough action. It culminates in some very satisfying final confrontations, and the story fortunately retains the more challenging elements from Rowling's source novels (challenging for a children's book, that is). Maybe my one takeaway from this viewing is just how interesting a character Severus Snape is. He is arguably the deepest, most fascinating, most romantic, and most tragic figure in the entire series. When one knows his entire story arc, it makes watching the earlier movies that much more engaging.

So this was a fun little OCD movie project of mine. I anticipate that these movies will have an incredibly long life in world popular culture. While the first couple of movies' effects and overall techniques are already a little dated and tired, the remaining half dozen films in the series have the look of ones that will remain relatively timeless. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Harry Potter Series, Part 1: Sorcerer's Stone through Goblet of Fire

A few weeks ago, having fallen ill for about four days straight, I felt the urge to watch something that was entertaining, comforting, and didn't strain my foggy brain. Upon realizing that I had actually never seen the final film in the Harry Potter series, and I had my answer. I had seen all of the first seven movies, but not since they had originally been released in theaters.

I'm not going to go into the minutiae of the various plot points that run through the 7-novel/8-movie tale. I'll keep things rather short, assuming that most people already know the basics or would rather just watch the movies for themselves. Here's how I found them upon this rewatch:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

Director: Christopher Columbus

In this first movie, we meet Harry Potter, a mistreated orphan boy who is informed that not only is there a secret world of magic and wizards, but that he is a rather special young man who is destined for great things within this wondrous landscape. He is brought to Hogwart's School of Wizardry, where he befriends Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley. The three eventually foil a plot by one of the school's teachers to help revive Voldemort, the presumed-dead evil wizard who killed Harry's parents 12 years prior.

Still an entertaining and faithful-to-a-fault adaptation that hasn't aged particularly well, The Sorcerer's Stone introduced all who hadn't read the books to the world of Harry Potter and the witches, wizards, and other dazzling elements around it. There are certainly clumsy elements to the story, and the three primary child actors had not really found their footing as performers. The special effects also haven't held up very well, with the CGI now looking rather garish and clunky. Director Christopher Columbus goes for fairly broad dialogue and comedy, as he's done in his other movies, which doesn't serve us older viewers terribly well.

All the same, the world that author J.K. Rowling created is still a lot of fun, and it provides enough wonder as it is revealed to us, even if the pacing is overly brisk. The plot also features enough amusing turns to keep things lively, and the adult actors are all absolutely perfect, as it's difficult to go wrong with actors the caliber of Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and the like. The movie isn't flawless, but it is a solid enough beginning to this movie franchise juggernaut. 

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Director: Christopher Columbus

Chapter two of the Potter series sees Harry return to Hogwarts and become embroiled in another mystery - this one involving various students turning up literally petrified around the campus. As Harry digs deeper, he learns a little more about his own history as well as the history of Voldemort, with whom he seems to be inexplicably linked.

Although still containing a few of the weaknesses of the first film, this second entry made some marked improvements. Main child actors Watson, Radcliffe, and Grint show a little more comfort with their roles and acting chops, even if they're not completely natural yet. Also helping matters is that the already-considerable adult cast is assisted by the inclusion of other top-notch actors like Kenneth Brannagh and Jason Isaacs. The effects are noticeably better, although the Quidditch match CGI still looks too artificially glossy and awkward.

As with the source novels, the tone and sophistication increases ever-so-slightly. This second volume features higher stakes, involving a bit more menace and some intriguing insight into the still-mysterious arch-villain Voldemort. The little plot turns reveal more clever updates of familiar myths and fairy tale elements. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

This film sees a 13-year-old Harry in his third year at Hogwart's dealing with the presence of the ghastly Dementors as they hover around the school on the lookout for an escaped wizard convict. The convict, Sirius Black, has some sort of tie to Harry's dead parents, and strange and dangerous events start to unfold around the school.

I always remember this third film in the series as the strongest one, and this repeat viewing didn't diminish that opinion. Directed by highly accomplished director Alfonso Cuaron, Azkaban almost immediately offers a darker look and tone, quickly introducing the horrific Dementors, grim reaper-like beings which siphon the happiness away from those unfortunate enough to go to near. These terrible creatures are a serious part of a grimmer chapter in the Potter series, one which sees the inclusion of great British actors like Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, and a few others. 

Other improvements over the previous chapters include dialogue which is less clumsy and an overall reduction of sentimentality. The plot, still highly faithful to Rowling's novel, also shows a bit more care with its details. Of course, a savvy and mature fan of science fiction and fantasy tales can pick many details apart, but if one keeps in mind that this is a family movie, then it clearly stands superior to its passable predecessors.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Director: Mike Newell

The fourth movie in the series gets into the action more quickly than the previous installments, soon getting to the titular and lethal "Goblet of Fire" tournament in which Harry unwillingly becomes a competitor. Now 14 years old, Harry is dealing with not only the stresses of the tournament but also questions about romance and friendship. These latter life elements eventually take a back seat, though, as Harry ultimately comes face-to-face with Voldemort himself. 

Goblet of Fire is something of a blend of the strengths and weaknesses of the previous three movies. It generally overcomes some sappier elements in its first two acts with some deadly serious consequences and repercussions in its third act. While some of the first two-third of the movie is given over to teenage angst, the final act makes it clear that play time is over. Over in a way that includes a full-on murder right in front of Harry's face. Not exactly the stuff of kiddie movies, which is quite welcome to any of us viewers past puberty. 

The three primary characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione are now acting as moody as nearly all 14 year-olds. The interpersonal drama can be a bit tedious at times, but it does create a deeper sense of character. Even if the sappier parts of the drama become a tad thick, they are dispatched in the final part of the movie, when the long-teased nemesis Voldemort finally makes his first true, full appearance. He brings with him the sense of terror that's been building through the previous three films, to be sure, and it sets up the rest of the series extremely well.

So the first half of this eight-film series was solid enough, although the earliest movies haven't aged as well. Fortunately, the general trend was that the quality improved, which boded well as I headed into movies five through eight (review coming in a couple of days).

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Marvel's Iron Fist (2017) [Spoiler-Free at First]

Spoiler-Free Section

I'm a tremendous fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). As a former card-carrying member of the Benevolent Order of Comic Dorks, I have reveled in nearly all of the movies and TV shows which have brought various Marvel comic heroes to life. While not every film or TV series has been great, I've found the entire MCU to be consistently engaging and entertaining.

But then came Iron Fist. I can't say that I think the show is as terrible as some reviewers have found it (a Forbes article absolutely savaged it a couple of weeks after its release), but I do agree with many who feel that it is the least compelling and generally weakest effort that the MCU has yet produced. This pained me since I really wanted to enjoy it, despite the negative reviews that I'd seen, and because I have enjoyed the other MCU Netflix shows quite a bit. 

Since I'm keeping this part of the review free of spoilers, I'll paint the story in broad strokes. The series follows Danny Rand's return to New York City after a 15-year absence during which he was presumed dead in a plane crash which claimed his parents' lives. While he left as a 10-year old son of an immensely wealthy father, he has returned as a Zen master of martial arts. Danny's naively returns to the skyscraper headquarters of his family's company - the Rand Corporation - and soon becomes the target of attempts to discredit his claims to majority ownership of Rand. As Danny digs deeper into the company, he finds darker secrets buried within its structure - secrets which are also connected to his parents' death and 15-year absence. 

A brief summary of the story reveals some interesting elements for good writers to work with, and there are hints that the writers of Iron Fist recognized this. The problem is that none of them seemed to know how to construct them into a tight, consistently compelling tale with a clear story arc. On virtually every level, the show falls short, making for a rather dull and sometimes puzzling 12-hour viewing experience. 

The other Netflix MCU shows - Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage - did very nice work in creating unique, compelling main characters with clear backgrounds and building solid, single-season stories around them. Iron Fist never seems to get this right, despite there being several very workable ingredients on hand. Danny Rand, although a bit derivative of Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark in terms of being immensely wealthy, could be used as a more Buddhist perspective on the greed-fueled world of corporate business. And the show even hints that this will be a major theme in its early episodes. But then the subject gets overridden by other plot elements, which in turn get overridden by others. In this sense, the show has the feel of a series for which several writers each wrote their own one or two episodes, without consulting each other enough or having the single show runner, Scott Buck, pare things down to a single, focused narrative. Every time I thought that one plot line was taking over and perhaps building some momentum and intrigue, it got lost among others or simply forgotten altogether. The result was a diluted main story. 

Many critics have trashed the casting in the movie, mostly due to English actor Finn Jones being tapped for the title role. I actually didn't have nearly the problem with Jones that many did. I thought he was fine, if not exactly a standout. The greater problem, in my view, was that the script was the most tepid one that I've seen in any MCU product. While there's nothing laughably bad about it, there is very little that is particularly gripping about many of the conversations or exchanges. Even when they start to reveal a potentially interesting plot element or emotion from a character, the momentum is lost due to a lack of follow-through. If not that, then it is simply short on creativity. I got the sense that Danny could have been an extremely complex and curious figure, if his character had been granted more integrity from one scene, situation, and episode to the next, but it is often as if the writers didn't know exactly what they wanted him to be - a naive, Zen goofball? An avenging angel of rage? A love-struck virgin in the big city? A tragic hero in the middle of a Greek tragedy? By trying to make him all of these things, the story effectively washed out the chance for him to clearly be any of them.

Danny at the gate of K'un L'un. His time here is woefully
underexplored in this series which seems to let an awful lot
of time go to waste.
Yet another area of disappointment is how poorly the show uses the 13-episode format which the Netflix series utilize. Admittedly, none of the MCU shows has gotten this completely right, with even the best shows (Daredevil's first season and Luke Cage, in my opinion) sometimes feeling overlong and padded with some unnecessary narrative tangents. Iron Fist not only bears the same weakness, only worse, but it clearly could have used the long running time to far greater effect. One of the more fascinating mysteries about Danny is his training in K'un L'un. How exactly did he survive the lethal, fiery plane crash that killed his parents? How did the monks find him? Why did they decide to take him in and train him? What was that evolution like for those 15 years? These and plenty of other questions could have been explored with so many episodes at their disposal, but the writers opted to keep things almost completely in New York City, with only a few extremely brief flashbacks of Danny in K'un L'un. I know that origin stories have been done to death, but this is actually a character who could use one, given that he is one of the lesser-known heroes in the Marvel Universe. Danny's background and the exact nature of K'un L'un are a constant enigma which is never properly explored in this series, leaving a feeling of dissatisfaction. I'm not saying I needed Danny's entire back story laid out, but I needed far more than was given.

And then there's the kung fu. Boy, is it pretty lame in this show. I'm not saying it's as awful as some B-grade 1980s, Enter the Ninja-style exploitation movie. But for the MCU and what this show was selling us on, they have to do way better than this. Firstly, while I won't knock Finn Jones's acting, the dude has to get in better shape before I buy him as "the greatest practitioner of kung fu in the world." Yes, the guy is in decent "yoga" shape. But we are told constantly in this show that he is, literally, an "unbeatable" weapon who has been under the strictest, most rigid martial arts training in the world for fifteen years. He needs to be in more than "decent" shape. He needs to have a Bruce Lee-in-his-prime physique. He needs to walk, move, and fight with the lithe, deadly grace of a panther. Finn doesn't. On top of that, whether due to the choreography, cinematography, or a combination of both, the action sequences are simply not all that interesting. There are a handful of entertaining moments and moves, but a handful is nowhere near enough for a 12-hour long series about the greatest martial artist in the world, fighting against hordes of thugs and ninjas. And don't get me started on the final fight in the series. It is, simply put, the most underwhelming and disappointing confrontation to end a movie or show in the MCU, by a long shot.

I'm still enough of an obsessive completionist that I will regularly go back and rewatch entire chunks of the MCU. At this point, I've seen the various movies and shows anywhere from two up to seven or eight times. This includes entire longer series like Agents of SHIELD and the 13-episode Netflix series. While I relish some of these re-watches more than others, I do enjoy them all to varying degrees. Iron Fist, unfortunately, will be one that I either skip entirely or force myself to watch through sheer completionist compulsion. This is not, I assume, what MCU honcho Kevin Feige has in mind for his shows.

My primary concern is not so much for this show. If they don't do a second season, I will not feel the slightest loss. If Marvel and Netflix somehow decide to pony up for a second season, though, they will have to do some serious thinking about whether to let showrunner Scott Buck head it up. I'm more concerned now about the forthcoming Inhumans series, which Buck is also overseeing. If his narrative vision and ability to punch up dialogue and characters doesn't improve, I don't have very high hopes for that show, either.

Spoiler-Laden Breakdown Ahead!!

So I can't let go of many, many little problems I have with this show, and I hope that airing them here will offer some sort of catharsis.

The first appearances of Danny make him
look like a guy desperately searching for
his hackey sack. And isn't the portable
music system a ripoff of Starlord?
Danny shows up in NYC and immediately comes off as a goofy, naive country boy. This might have worked, if they had integrated this characteristic into his backstory as well as the modern narrative. Instead, we learn that it was actually Danny's burning rage at his parents' deaths and his burning desire to get answers about them that compelled him to leave his sworn post as guardian of the gate of K'un L'un. If he's that angry, why is he a wide-eyed doofus in parts of the early episodes? From what we learn about his training and his past losses, I would expect him to be a somewhat more brooding, focused man on a mission. What we get, however, is a guy who barely seems to know what he wants to do. Sure, he decides to retake his place at the Rand Corporation, but he has very little notion of what he wants to do with it. This lack of planning on Danny's part almost serves as a reflection of the writers' lack of vision for his character and the arc of the show.

Colleen Wing. OK, I don't have tremendous problems with her. I thought that Jessica Henwick did a solid acting job, and she cut a decent figure as a fighter. However, this was another place where the writers left too much on the table in terms of her background. We can easily see that she's a martial artist to be reckoned with, and we get some hints as to how and why her family has a legacy in East Asian martial arts. The trouble is that these hints never completely give way to a deeper, potentially more engaging look at how she ended up being such a badass and how she ended up being a part of the Hand.

Speaking of the Hand, we get to another issue I have with the series. From the Daredevil series, we know that the Hand is one of the shadowy forces exerting its nefarious power on the city of New York. Based on Daredevil's first two seasons, the Hand had emerged as the great nemesis against which we can presume The Defenders heroes will contend. But in Iron Fist, their threat gets watered down a bit. Bakuto's supposedly "kinder, gentler" faction of the Hand raises more questions than it answers about this group. Until Iron Fist, the Hand was an ancient cabal of ninja and other East Asian power brokers and assassins that could likely take over and/or take down the entire NYC metropolis. After Iron Fist, it comes off as a unit as fractious as the current Republican administration of the U.S. government. Not quite as compelling an adversary, in my view.

And so we get to Bakuto. After his first brief appearances in the series, I found him a bit intriguing. Soon, though, I found actor Ramon Rodriguez's performance frustrating. He adopts a ponderous, Zen-like delivery of his lines...which...come off as...a rather...annoying reworking of...William Shatner. After learning of his deceptions, we never quite get a satisfying reckoning of his ultimate goals with the Rand Corporation or his issues with the nefarious Madame Gao. And even Gao herself, previously a curiously imposing figure, is reduced to an enigma who contradicts herself in illogical ways. "I, unlike others, have never deceived you, Danny," she states towards the end of the series. This, of course, is categorically false, and Danny should immediately realize it (the bargain fight in episode six comes to mind). Of course he doesn't, though, which is yet another indicator of the weak writing in the series.

Harold (right) bullies his son into doing one of many horrific
deeds in this series. Harold was one of several characters that
often threatened to become truly interesting, only to fall short.
One other major beef I have with the series is the character of Harold Meachum, who ultimately becomes the primary foe of Danny. It is clear from the very start of the series that Meachum is a villain, if for no other reason than David Wenham's sleazy, imposing performance. His bizarre shifts between icy-cold, hyper-ambitious businessman to rage-filled, homicidal maniac are never explained in a satisfactory way. Yet again, there was ample opportunity for creative and engaging exploration of these shifts, but they are never realized. In the end, we get an incredibly lame rooftop showdown between Danny and Harold. In a show completely built around "the greatest martial artist in the world," I expect far more than a pathetically short-lived, one-on-one punch-/shootout that ends with the villain getting chucked off a building. Danny uses the Iron Fist for one semi-interesting moment, but the rest of this resolution is sadly lacking.

I could probably go on and on with the little things that irked me about this show. As I stated, there was no one thing that scuttled the show. Rather, it was a classic example of death by a thousand little cuts. I hope the MCU people take the very fair criticisms about the show into account, should they decide to roll the dice on another season.