Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

You know, I think that this current time, more than never, is when audiences truly constitute what is classified as a flop. Sure, flops have existed since before the days of Ed Wood and his gobsmacking pictures, but I must ask: Has any group of consumers ever had second thoughts over their dissenting views of a film after they see it advertised as "Certified Fresh." That emblem didn't stop people from persisting that The Good Dinosaur is one of PIXAR's most mediocre pieces of work, or purporting that La La Land is overrated fluff, designed to appeal to the most pedantic, square and/or most trendy-nostalgia-loving crowd and possibly to spark a racial outcry if the Oscars night hadn't ended the way it did, or angrily insisting that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an appalling facsimile; a featureless, corporate product bereft of any sort of identity...

Or from The Last Jedi being described as "divisive." *sigh* Time for me to jump on that hype bandwagon.

The film begins with the First Order hot on the trail of the Resistance. During battle, Poe Dameron executes a counterattack on the First Order, which is successful in context of his intentions, but causes many deaths on his part. Soon after, Finn awakes, recovering from the wounds he obtained in the previous film. He embarks on a mission, along with a mechanic named Rose, the sister of one of the women killed in the battle, to find the Master Codebreaker to earn them access onto the main Destroyer and disable their tracking device.

Meanwhile, Rey has discovered Luke Skywalker on a remote island, beleaguered, disheveled, and a self-disgraced Jedi, who believes that he should be the last Jedi. In spite of this, he begrudgingly agrees to train Rey on the Force. However, he is getting some uncomfortable vibes from her, akin to his failed protégé, Kylo Ren.

One aspect of this film that struck me, moreso than in the last film, was the cinematography. I mean, it's gorgeous, to be sure, but it also feels more concentrated this time around. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin frames the film with such crisp focus and ferocious intent that it immediately transports the viewer and not merely engages them into this universe, but strikes it down on them in a good way. It's almost daring you not to paying attention to the obvious visual tricks (i.e. the green screen and certain obvious CGI moments) and instead instructs you to comprehend the weight of everything. It immerses the viewer into the environment and the emotions. And, oh boy, are there plenty of emotions!

When it comes to the emotional level, this is the strongest in the Star Wars franchise. Every possible feeling (the sadness, the excitement, the tension, the uncertainty, the confusion, the angst) is delivered with an august boldness to it. Every emotional moment just gives a searing, aggressive punch to the gut. The action sequences are more captivating in this film, not due to the visuals themselves, but because the stakes and the ramifications are more intense. Not only does every death hit home, but every almost-death feels that much more like a frightening close call. This is the first Star Wars film I've seen where the characters truly seemed in peril for their life.

It is, to my surprise, also the most philosophical and the most cerebral film in the series. Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson has taken the controls of the Millennium Falcon this time and certainly possesses experience from off-beat films, such as Brick and The Brothers Bloom, to another intricate, Nolan-esque science-fiction film, Looper. He brings principles and ideas to this film that are second-to-none for this franchise. The idea of themes such as loss, love, failure, and regret being tackled sounds corny, but it is incredibly, powerfully cogent. The disgruntled master or the former wizard denouncing his own teachings is nothing new, but with Luke Skywalker, his perceived mistakes and his temperament and reaction to them bring a nihilistic, yet veritable edge to the film, stating that the Force shouldn't be used to deify Jedis because hell, it's not life's emollient. Life still exists, in spite of it.

It goes even further from that. In this film, the Force has telepathic benefits and Rey is able to communicate with Kylo Ren. The interaction between them is one of the most mesmerizing aspects of the film, as it's a rivalry with an element of potential respect and profundity. They both detect the same vibe in each other: the same ineffable facet that terrifies Luke Skywalker. However, Kylo wants Rey to cross over to the Dark Side and Rey wants Kylo to convert out of the Dark Side and reconnect with his good side and heal his inner trauma and turmoil, in relation to his family troubles.

However, in the midst of all this emotional bargaining between the two, Kylo sends Rey to her own personal darkness, with Rey expecting to confront some unpleasant moments of her past, but she finds no answers. Her silver lining seems to lie in the possibility of Kylo being reformed. Luke Skywalker believes that all darkness should be avoided and when one meets with darkness, they are doomed. However, Rey believes that the cure for darkness is not to ostracize and ignore it, but rather repair it.

That element of Luke's intentional avoidance of darkness pervades through parts of the film is such fiercely, stunningly astute ways, as in a scene where [a cameo I will not spoil] encourages Luke to burn all his teachings, because the Force will still continue to exist and even states the greatest teacher is failure. Typically, I would refrain from comparing a Star Wars movie to Inside Out, but this is some of the most spellbinding screenwriting that the franchise has presented.

The film also manages to get the same great actors of the first film to ameliorate their roles this time around. I could drool over Mark Hamill's impeccable, angst-ridden revamping of Luke Skywalker for hours, as I could over John Boyega, who has thus far not done anything to sully or revert his reputation. Oscar Issac is very effective as the warm-hearted maverick, Poe Dameron. Adam Driver's emo-esque image works impressively well this time around as Kylo Ren. In Force Awakens, when he was merely this force of power, his emo vibe was too distracting and separated me from truly buying the character outside of the mask. Here, it's still present, but when focused on the character's inner conflict and struggle and coming to grips with all parts of himself and how he uses his thoughtless, mindless, insatiable desire for power as a substitute, it is colossally powerful. In this case, the actor doesn't particularly dictate the strength of the character, but moreso the character's functionality and what the character has to confront.

Daisy Redley is, once again, fantastic as Rey, allowing herself to be inquisitive, uncertain, and sensitive internally, while maintaining her surface fortitude. And, of course, Carrie Fisher is a sweetheart. As she displays her warm smile, while simultaneously bearing that plaintive, forlorn gaze, it seems as if she could detect that this would be her swan song. She portrays Princess Leia with her unalloyed heart, unbeknownst to her that she would no longer be able to. R.I.P. to the Princess, indeed.

I can't say that this film tops the immaculate melding of wondrous magic and perfect escapism of Empire Strikes Back, my favorite Star Wars film to date, nor will I controvert the freshness and the ingenuity of the first film. However, this film truly is a triumph for Star Wars and for now. On a logical and emotional level, this film achieves heights previously inconceivable. As much as I adore J.J. Abrams, I'm already mourning for Rian Johnson, as he will not be returning to write and direct the next film. It's rather ironic that the best Star Wars film in years gets the solemn, glum subtitle.

Last Jedi? Fuck that. THIS is the new hope!

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Coco (2017)

So, how does PIXAR warm us up for the feature presentation this time? The short answer: They don't, but Disney does!

The short film, Olaf's Frozen Adventure, is not only the longest short film to precede a Disney feature film, but it's also their best, boasting beautiful animation, winsomely sweeping music, a breezy, crisp, amusing, and gently profound story, and it provides a return to form for the characters we've grown attached to. If this is any indication, I actually endorse and am anticipating that Frozen sequel.

It's also proof that both Disney and PIXAR can concurrently achieve the same outcome in the same immaculate, beautiful way. I had the same instant, infectiously visceral verdict twice. Frozen makes me happy. Coco makes me happy.

Coco begins with the story of a family that got torn apart. By music, so it seemed. At first, music united a certain husband and wife, but the husband decided to go off and play to the world, leaving the wife to be a single mom. Angered, she abolished all music and began a shoemaking business, which became a family business. Throughout the years, the family had two common bonds: making shoes and hating music.

That is, except for Miguel, who loves music, has a hobby for playing guitar, and idolizes the late musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. His zeal for music drives a wedge, at times, between him and his family. After running away, hoping to seek solace in a talent show for Dia de los Muertos and to confirm that he is his great-grandfather, he stumbles across la Cruz's old guitar. Once he strums it, he's transported to the Land of the Dead. In order to escape, he needs his family's blessing...but it may come at a cost.

This film was a tough one. Not in terms of watching it, but critically perceiving it. I wasn't awash with adjectives, nor was I given the urge to jump out of my seat and proselytize its mature, acute ideas. I was just mesmerized throughout the whole film. To me, the greatest feat of all was how they managed to treat Mexico, not just with dignity and veneration, but also without the sanitized, outsider, Americanized attitude that can linger over films like them. I mean, sure, it's still specifically an American film. The prevailing language is English, the dialogue contains an occasional truism on family and seizing the moment, and the "action climax" sometimes feels a little technical and clichéd, in a way which you've seen in American films.

However, the meticulous detail that has given to Mexico is whoppingly extraordinary. The Spanish they drop is relatively rudimentary and yet it still feels genuine and the niceties in speech of the locals, the all-Spanish signs, and the varied appearances of people are all on point. PIXAR has gone to space, ant farms, France, Scotland, and in prehistoric times, amongst a myriad of other locale, and yet this is the first time I felt that PIXAR immersed themselves in a world unlike their own; a world that seems bigger and more unique than they have ever experienced. Given how they are portraying Mexico, that's an enormous compliment.

And ALL of it is exhibited and constructed with glorious animation. I said that Moana might just be second place, in terms of solely animation in the Disney canon. Now, it's third, because Coco literally has some of the most precise and perfect animation I've ever seen. Ever. The gorgeous, stately colors are perfectly lit and composed, being either evocative and redolent of Mexican culture or contributing to an awe-inspiring universe. There is so much vibrancy, vividity, and virtuosity that describing it all needs a separate thesis. The character designs can be cartoony, but given how the humor is solid, that's just an aspect of the film. There happens to be a dog in this film, similar to the chicken in Moana, but way superior, because he (1) has more an emotional range and (2) is given more to do. The  Even the design of Coco, Miguel's great-great grandmother is resplendent, showcasing every wrinkle and squint to represent her debilitating condition.

In this progressive, bleeding-heart, delicate time in America, it can be seen as either a shrewd personal decision or a shrewd corporate decision on PIXAR's part to cast all Hispanic actors for the voices. Either way, it's a wonderful, gracious decision, as all the actors are perfect, especially ostensibly-12-year-old Anthony Gonzalez, who gives Miguel the innocent strength, juvenile boldness, wide-eyed, effervescent zeal, and the emotional heft needed for the role, as well as displaying an infectious charisma and nuance in the musical sequences.

Speaking of which, it would be a sin to have a PIXAR film with a music-centered narrative and not have music. And when one sets the stage of this having to do with Mexican culture and the recruit at hand is Michael Giacchino, you get a wonderfully indigenous, buoyant, and effective soundtrack, which does include some tunes all sung in Spanish. The song of the film, as stated by everybody, is Remember Me, but not particularly because of the song, but because of the evolutionary journey it travels. First, it's a cute song, then it's used humorously as "the obvious song," and finally, it's used as a painful plea to do just that, while also adding layers of regret and sorrow. All of it is beautifully culminated in one of the most emotional, tear-jerking moments in the Disney-PIXAR collection. *sniffles* Goddamn it, PIXAR! You did it again.

The story and content of Coco is enriching, as well. I wouldn't deem it the most influential (see the Toy Story films) or the most thoughtfully complex (see Inside Out), but it's the most emotionally effective. It manages to tackle death in a way that doesn't totally tackle it. This may seem like a cop-out, but how they add multiple layers to their conceits makes it all surefooted and finessed. The Land of the Dead contains the bridge, where lost ones cross over to the real world, unbeknownst to the living, to be with their families, on Dia de los Muertos. Instantly, it gives hope to not just kids, but adults that all deal with the queries and quandaries of not merely life after death, but the presence of the dead.

However, it doesn't stop there. It turns out there's another world, unbeknownst to the dead. It's a world the dead are sent to when they are forgotten. To kids, this aspect may be a little disorienting or just a simple part of a unique world, but to adults, this is likely one of the most audacious and sympathetically morbid things ever seen on film, specifically those who either don't care about death or don't care where they go afterwards. The insouciance of these attitudes can be stripped away when they ponder how much they contribute now, as a living soul. The film, however, doesn't do it to condescend, but rather inspire to not merely to settle as a human; to actually be a stand-out, but not always in the loftiest superlative.

Through all of this, death is never perceived as the antagonist, or even particularly redoubtable. There is a death scene in the real world, but it's done offscreen. The final scene of the film reinforces this film's tenets that death is life, not merely in the sense of being the final destination, but also in the sense that the dead don't leave. While it's an idea that being presented before, the methods of visual representation, emotional connection, and thematic conveyance as done by Coco make it a distinct, powerful story.

It's odd. The screening I attended was comprised all of adults. Granted, it was 9:00, but given their investment with the film, laughing, blowing their noses, wiping their eyes, akin to I, a 21-year-old, born one year after PIXAR's first film, it affirmed a specific belief of mine: the term, "just a kid's film," is more denigrating and debasing now than it ever has been before. Just because we'll always get our Emoji movies doesn't mean that the vogue isn't for children's film to progress, provoke, and challenge. Where My Little Pony lagged, Coco accomplishes, sustains, and consistently surpasses.

It's also proved my belief that Disney and PIXAR are the gift that keeps on giving. This film, surprisingly, can act as the half of a double feature with Detroit (thematically, of course. Don't try this at home, kids.). Both films possess heavy racial contexts and environments. While Detroit dealt with a group being infiltrated and having to cope with hell, Coco offers hope. In presenting the beauty of a culture and group of people, the film has been treated with respect, not just by the inhabitants of that culture, but by those who view it as foreign. The film offers hope that all cultures and peoples can be treated with the same honor and humanity in real life.

Also, through an ingenious plot twist that I won't spoil, this films offers us the image of an evil, maniacal, dissolute, arrogant figure beloved by many being exposed and censured for being a fraud, a phony, and a criminal. Given what's currently going on in Hollywood and our own society, this is both commentary and wishful thinking. Although, to all you PIXAR execs, keep it in your pants and/or to yourself. I want to belief the insertion of this aspect of this film is allegorical of the ills of our society, not ironic and hapless in revealing the ills of you.

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Monday, October 23, 2017

It (2017)

Y'all know that the sole reason that this film is solid is because they covered the best part of the original film, right? Like, are you guys sincerely anticipating part two? I mean, if you are eagerly awaiting for a mummy being warded off by birdcalls, then...different strokes, I suppose.

It's funny. The history of Stephen King film adaptations, be it in theaters or on television, could not be further from spotless than if it was recorded in a notebook doused in warm water and then splattered with Gerber baby food. We all know the classics...and we all know the failures. And yet, out of all of them, the most captivating with audiences seems to be Stephen King's It. But why? Well, I guess that outside of the primary fear presented in the film, which has deemed the film "scary," it's also been the one that's been examined the most critically in the years after its release, with the prevailing discovery being that...*gasp*'s actually not very scary. Or very structured. Or very good.

While the original, as a whole, is underwhelming (and, at times, ridiculous), I do admit that the first half is effective. Cornball at times, but still effective. Coming 5 years after one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King work of fiction, Stand By Me, the first half is adept in creating an ambience of naïve uncertainty, bravado, and natural camaraderie.

This film is that first half seen through the lens of 2017. Which means better.

The film takes place in Derry, Maine, a town that is witnessing a painful epidemic of missing children. According to the film, deaths and disappearances occur six times the national rate in Derry, Maine. During summer of 1989, seven children are being terrorized by Pennywise the Dancing Clown, personifying each of their most deepest traumas and phobias and possessing the ability to attack any child, having killed the brother of one of the children, Billy, the year before. While horrified and tormented, they make it their mission to band together and destroy the monster.

In our era steeped in a perpetual obsession with nostalgia, there is a retro feel that envelops this film. The intro is shot in such a tint that it resembles the 80s and 90s. The score is gloriously retro and evocative, composed wonderfully by Benjamin Wallfisch. Above all, this film replicates the chemistry of the children in the original film with ease and passion. However, the film melds the amiable, good-natured camaraderie of the past with a 2017 sensibility of having an unflinching, veritable perspective on life and all its niceties.

Director Andy Muschietti, following up his directorial debut, Mama, with this film, perceptively and sagaciously accentuates the fact that these are middle school kids and their vibes and energies are right on the money, displaying raw innocence, adolescent awkwardness, and even unremitting nastiness and puerile vulgarity. Billy, the main character, isn't particularly a leader, so much as he's just unwilling to back down. Each of the other kids manage to inhabit individual authenticities, as opposed to hiding behind their prominent traits.

Beverly demolishes the "token girl" syndromes, allowing herself to be damaged and yet living life straightforwardly, carefree, and, occasionally, even emitting acerbic irony. Ben, the fat kid, is given much more of a heart and a warm humility, rather than just being a victim, and it helps craft an inadvertent, yet a fitting, engaging, and perfectly handled love triangle between him, Beverly, and Billy. My favorite of the bunch was Richie, bearing a fiercely salacious and riotously funny potty mouth. All of the child actors are damn impressive, having the forthright, unadorned nature and spirit that the roles require. As Henry the bully, Nicholas Hamilton gives a deeply cruel and demented performance, looking very similar to the bully from the original and yet beefing him up emotionally. Bill Skarsgard one-ups Mr. Curry as Pennywise. Curry was more entertaining, but Skarsgard is the more loonier and more scarier actor, occasionally resembling Johnny Depp, if Johnny Depp actually still took challenging roles.

Speaking of which, the scares. How are they? Well, to elaborate, the purpose of the novel and the original film, outside of compounding half of America's coulrophobia, seems to ostensibly be to combine fear and tragedy. Fear can spring from tragedy, or they can even be synonymous with each other. I can't speak for the novel, but in the original film, the fear aspect is the focus and seeing how it isn't incredibly scary, it falters. In this film, they coexist splendidly, not only exploiting tragedy, but also inadequacy. This allows for the film to expand, enlarge, and emphasize certain aspects of life to not just project fear, but to damage. Aspects such as racism, deadly fires, realities repeating themselves, personal losses, diseases, even the ramifications of sexual abuse (yeah, it goes there). 

Because the fear is from a provenance that's identifiable and real, it highlights and intensifies the supernatural surface horror even more. Skarsgard's Pennywise outdoes the original in one crucial department: action. In the original, Curry just seemed like some growling, cartoonish monster. I guess the intent was to make him seem more cunning and studied, but...Tim Curry doesn't really do cunning and studied, per se. I just never felt like the kids were in any formidable danger. This film...holy shit. Pennywise is a straight up leviathan, knowing not only how to torment and allure, but how to demonstrate his intentions. There were three specific scenes, in which Pennywise lunged at the kids, all the while shrieking and shaking his head, that absolutely terrified me. All of it comes to a head in a thrilling climax that produces some of the most jaw-dropping and vibrantly freakish special effects I've seen.

So, to condense all this and put it bluntly...pretty scary. Intelligently so, too, thanks to screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman. Also, props to the film company for timing the release of this film to be literally one year after that crazy clown phenomenon of last year. Like...seriously, am I the only one who noticed that?

Watching this film is a breath of relief after having to watch, for the most part, mediocre horror trailers that routinely remind me that we are always going to be awashed with uninspired, churned-out dreck made merely to capitalize on tried-and-true trends, ingratiate with flashier special effects, and to satiate the most simplistic film palates. They also remind me to (a) be grateful of and cherish the shining glories even more and (b) the shining glories will never lose their luster.

It's revealing how certain theatres have already rid themselves of six talking ponies after only two weeks and yet a month-and-a-half later, this film can still draw in a sizeable audience. I guess it's also revealing how up in arms we get when a fresh, enterprising horror film gets its 100% status unjustly stripped. What it reveals is that ingenuity and vigor is profoundly sought after in the horror genre, moreso by audiences than critics. This may not be Get Out, but it's...It.

So....y'all ready for part two? *groans*

RATING: Three-and-a-quarter stars out of four

Monday, October 16, 2017

My Little Pony: The Movie (2017)

Oh, what a week it's been for feminism. Not only has Harvey Weinstein been rightfully dragged through a morass of embarrassment and exploitative scandal, but I think the My Little Pony franchise may be back in the hands of the original fans.

I've elaborated on and on about how much of an astonishing and invigorating detour the MLP franchise has taken with the advent of Friendship is Magic. However, given the unexpected influx of male viewers, commonly known as "Bronies," it can be said that this show has been forced to allocate the adulation. While this development did help transcend gender expectations and reaffirmed the age-old adage that it's what's on the inside that counts, men have imposed an overarching, sanctimonious, haughty streak on feminism for years in a multitude of different versions. It was great that men could admit to liking something made to please little girls. However, dispersed amongst bronies is a mild aura of re-appropriation; a self-righteous, selfish, entitled latch on this franchise. Now that men was sharing a fandom with females, they feel that they must be entertained, as well; an additional group of mouths that have to be satiated.

Well, good news! My Little Pony: The Movie has cracked the code by making a cinematic translation so frothy, insular, and simplistic, it'll restore the obloquious perspective towards the men who go to see this and will proudly entertain little girls with seven years old being the maximum age.

*sighs* I'm a brony. Let's do this.

The film takes place in Equestria with Princess Twilight Sparkle setting up for the Friendship Festival, with a performance by Songbird Serenade (voiced by pop singer Sia) at the centerpiece. As Twilight and her friends prepare for the festival, catastrophe strikes! A vengeful, contentious unicorn, Tempest Shadow, comes to capture the magic of the princesses of Equestria and deliver it to her boss, The Storm King, in order to repair her damaged unicorn horn. With the other three princesses trapped, it's up to the Mane Six to restore harmony and joy to Equestria.

I'm disappointed to announce that this film doesn't have the vitality and spirit of the television series, which is currently in its superb seventh season. One aspect that drew my ire was the animation. In the television series, the animation is created through Adobe Flash, but the series has an edge to it, a unique flair to it, which draws upon multiple influences to create something stylistically singular and stunning. Here, the film was obviously was given a budget to refine and polish the animation, but surprisingly, it actually makes it look cheaper. Everything moves so sluggishly and stiltedly. The action sequences are not done with any verve or splendor. They act as merely segues from one scene to next, acting as oleaginously linear, but visually ho-hum. The animation shows such reticence and restraint, which doesn't allow for the superlative of effervescence in the characters.

In fact, the characters themselves are not as sharply presented. For the majority of the film, it seems to rely on Pinkie Pie to carry the film, bringing, to be fair, her signature zany, ruthlessly madcap humor that does translate equally on the small and big screens, making her the saving grace of this film. However, the rest of the Mane Six are seen not having personalities, but having traits, particularly to launch thin, one-dimensional gags, which only a few are amusing. Even Twilight Sparkle is a crushing bore. She's just in the forefront, not stoic or sagacious. Just a leader. Additionally, none of the emotional moments resonate whatsoever, either being perfunctory or just forced.

The rest of the characters are typical uninspired stock characters, whose purpose are only for the Mane Six to come in, charm them, and then move on to the next, with the exception of the seaponies, voiced with much fervor and energy by Uzo Aduba and Kristen Chenoweth. Tempest Shadow, while seemingly having potential for more depth in the beginning, unfolds into a predictable arc. Grubber, the henchman to Tempest, is a labored attempt at comic relief, who wears out his welcome real quick. And the Storm King? What a dull villain, acting more as an unrealized, lukewarm, satirical blueprint for a comic villain than a full-fledged villain.

I'll give credit, however, to one man: composer Daniel Ingram. This guy has such a distinct style of composition and songwriting, which leads to some of the strongest music in the show. This time, he outdoes himself, crafting the bounciest, catching, and enticing songs in the franchise. Most of these songs rank among the best Friendship is Magic songs ever and the visuals assigned to them are amiably animated and inviting. I have to get my hands on the soundtrack, but I'll have to skip that Sia song. Funny, seeing how the most middling and unimpressive song of the whole film is the one that's the lead single. Your call, Hasbro.

Throughout the film, I kept asking myself, what was the point of this movie? What was it trying to contribute to the series? What did it add? What was its purpose? I struggled to give an answer to that last one, because the humor's ratio of funny jokes to feckless ones is adequate and passable. I chuckled and even laughed out loud quite a bit and yet I was still feeling unsatisfied. That's when I put my finger on it. This film was not made to entertain or engage. It was made merely to amuse. It's all surface, locale, music, gags; everything to keep a child distracted, but not stimulated. That's not how the show operates. It tells such captivating stories and delivers such intricate, identifiable morals in twenty-two minutes than an entire 90-minute movie.

That doesn't make it a bad film, necessarily, but a dispensable one. Its problem wasn't cynical pandering or lackadaisical sensibilities, but under-ambitiousness. It strives to play it so safely and so subserviently to the easiest market that it forgets all of the other cylinders to fire, in order to make it enduring. Instead of Friendship is Magic, this film should've been subtitled, Friendship is a Mantra.

RATING: Two-and-a-half stars out of four

Friday, August 18, 2017

Detroit (2017)

In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal masterfully expressed a helpless sense of tension and hazard with The Hurt Locker, resulting in a monumental Oscar win against Bigelow's ex-husband, James Cameron, and the trivial plaudit of it being my favorite war film to date. In 2012, a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, they tapped into the daunting, innate, post-9/11 fears of America, as well as its bold patriotism, with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that skillfully display that same tension-laced spirit, but with an added feeling of strength and strategy. In 2017, she retains these elements and introduces one more: fury. As shown in this recent cinematic endeavor, fury, at its apex, is not accumulated slowly. Fury, at its height, is an intrinsic emotion; human, valuable, and vital for change, or at least for issues to be brought to the forefront.

In 2017, she takes us back. To 50 years ago. To Detroit.

The film takes us to the beginning of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, where an unlicensed club gets raided. Looting, thievery and chaos between the locals and the authorities ensue, which results in a cancelled Dramatics performance, leading to its passionate lead singer Larry Reed and his friend, Fred, staying at the Algiers Motel. After a guest shoots blanks to authorities guarding the motel from the outside, the police round up all black guests and two white prostitutes and are ruthlessly tormented, debased, ridiculed, and tortured by corrupt officer Phillip Krauss. The film centers on the terse "before", tumultuous "during," and the precarious "after" of the riot.

I just elaborated on the narrative for this movie, which is odd because, in execution, it's not particularly a very narrative movie. While there is a thread, a linear blueprint isn't the salient focus. Rather, it feels more like a seamless, stream-of-conscious, documentary-like progression of the events of the riot. I know that that is the nature of film; for events to happen with surprise, as life does. However, this truly feels like a massive plain, specifically laid out for the life of a incendiary incident to germinate each and every day. It is merely heightened for dramatic purposes.

While this film has been receiving relatively solid acclaim (an 83% of Rotten Tomatoes), this film has earned a fair amount of detractors. Aside from Armond White (I'm trying to forget him as much as you all are, so moving on), this film has been criticized for not only omitting crucial details of the riot, but it also has been accused of having an overall hyper-sensitive approach, sentimentally and simplistically depicting events and over-victimizing black people and thus degrading and strangely contorting their struggle. And...I see some, repeat some, of those traits.

Bigelow tends to delineate heroes, whether warped, irrepressibly flawed, antihero-ish heroes, such as Hurt Locker's William James, or outspoken, belligerently irresistible presences, such as Zero Dark Thirty's Maya. This film is not fraught with heroes, but it does present some, such as specific military officials, in a way that is oddly angelic. Additionally, certain lines of dialogue, particularly a pleading line by Julie Ann, one of the prostitutes, do strike a note of excessive, ennobled pity and sweeping, simple sanctimony. HOWEVER, as far as it having that tone as a whole, fuck no!

Seriously, *spoilers*, the case involved graphic, appalling torture and mistreatment to an innocent group of people and was swiftly covered up, in the face of the holy spirit of social class and repugnant stances that are nepotistic toward the more privileged majority. Uh...sound familiar? Contrary to A.O. Scott's perspective, I feel that this is not a tale of "black helplessness or passivity," but a diorama to black reality. Even the final note of the film involving Larry singing a church song feels less like inspirational catharsis and more a bleak exhortation to sustain hope in the face of the ugly bludgeoning from the motley injustices they have and will face. Honestly, the summation of this can be seen in a scene at the Algiers Motel prior to the intervention of the police. Carl, the primer responsible for the incident, goes on a spiel to Julie Ann about being black in America, which happens to be the most impassioned, hardline, ferocious, and even most humorous scene of the film.

The characters range a gargantuan gamut of sensibilities and they are delivered with gritty, gut-wrenching performances. Algee Smith is a scintillating revelation as Larry, possessing a beautiful singing voice and lending a pensive, desperate vibe. The way he shows the unfolding of his arc, transforming from having an alacrity for stardom to a self-imposed need to retain and focus on his painful realities, is elegiacally enrapturing. I will, too, be damned if John Boyega has his time in the spotlight cruelly truncated because his performance as Melvin Dismukes, a security guard that tries to assuage the situation, is astonishing. He has the potential to be the next Denzel Washington. After all, he has that same rugged machismo and edgy warmth that commands your attention.

It also helps that the filmmakers bestowed unto him a stealthily serviceable character. In many ways, he is similar to Forest Whitaker's Butler: a genial man, who is a quasi-inspirational semi-bystander, with two different factors involved: weight and action. He is a security guard that ends up working alongside the police and National Guard, but he is the one force that wants to maintain safety and sanity during this racially incited bedlam, getting involved when it's situationally acceptable and convenient to do so, but also staying silent a lot, as not to exacerbate anybody. However, as the actual case proceeds, his rage, guilt, and helplessness beset him. He's one of the primary protagonists and yet  he's never allowed to be fully heroic, which makes for an agonizing portrayal from Boyega.

However, the thief of the whole movie, of all the performances, is Will Poulter as Officer Phillip Krauss. I will most likely agitate the #OscarsSoWhite crowd by saying this about a movie with an overwhelmingly African-American cast, but I'm putting my Oscar ballot in for him. He fills to the brim with villainy, brutal hatred, and demonic self-interest. His cinematic transmogrification from innocuous teen roles to this despicable character is one of the most piquant and potent revelations since Mo'Nique's Oscar-winning turn in Precious. As well, his lack of physical maturity adds a deeper dimension to the character. His puerile appearance and actions serve as a perfect representation for immature adults that serve in the police or the Army as a subconscious method of sublimating a primal eagerness for power, for control, for, arguably, an insatiable thirst for blood. Additionally, the intro to his character initially exhibits him as the cop that is the closest to being on the side of the rioters. The juxtaposition of that with his subsequent actions leaves it to wonder if it was an off-kilter, deranged way to normalize and empower himself. It's a marvelous acting job.

Throughout the film, I was struggling whether which film was better: this or The Hurt Locker. I say that, because of an askew moment here and there and the fact that the first five minutes or so left me feeling rather cold, The Hurt Locker beats it by a overwhelmingly scant margin. Either way, the political contexts for both are staggering. Hurt Locker gained mainstream attention after the end of the Bush administration, which could give life to the argument that it's practically a morbidly droll allegory for the frivolousness of the Iraq War, with its lead almost reveling in his own slipshod, potentially destructive predilections. However, this film took me to a sundry of places. This is the most brutal, harrowing, pertinacious, frustrating, impetuous, apoplectic, loudest, tragic, angriest, and most uncomfortable film of 2017. It is also the best film of 2017 so far, a film utterly germane with current times. Every sound can be replicated by the disillusioned, aching voices of today. Without implementing or infusing any feminist iconography or dialogue into her films, she has become the most feminist director around right now, with more balls than many of her male compadres.

Given our current President's distasteful, egregious rhetoric, maybe we still are in 1967. But hey, we got to make sure we take both sides into account, right? Them damn alt-lefters!

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

Sometimes, a specific style can be just as much burdensome as it can be awesome, particularly if used ad nauseum. It seems that the unanimous example for this is the cinematic compendium of Christopher Nolan. Keep in mind, I actually have nothing against the repetition of his own formula. He is one of the boldest, most captivating, talented, and orgasmically intelligent men in the business and I do concede that, despite people's issues with him, this remains the ultimate consensus. However, when he released Inception, my favorite Nolan film to date, in 2010, it was both the best and worst occurrence for him.

Yes, Nolan has made visionary strokes of cinema. Yes, he has pushed the boundaries of how one can tell a story. Yes, his ideas are meticulous, enlightening, and enrapturing to the point of mild convolution. None of this was new. However, this was the first time he integrate all of these traits and turned it into an unexpectedly commercial, accessible blockbuster. Yes, even more so than Dark Knight. However, while it was a cultural juggernaut, it did lead to more excoriating dissection of his subsequent films. The final entry of his Batman trilogy, while critically praised, was also panned for not having a cohesive, solid story. Interstellar, while critically praised, was also ridiculed for being a third-rate Inception in space, meaning that indeed, critical praise means nothing to the discerning Internet squadron. Oh, the venom I've encountered!

So after being away from film for three years, he decided to try the most daring thing he could possibly attempt: a film under two hours long with a story not originated by Nolan, but moreso through true events, executed with a relatively normal tone and with a cast that includes a former boy band member. In relation to his other works, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk certainly does go in a different...direction! *rimshot*

The film takes place during WWII in 1940. Thousands of Allied soldiers are stranded in Dunkirk after the invasion of France. They await deliverance and freedom from Dunkirk. With the assistance and support of the Navy and Air Force, a valiant plot is devised to evacuate thousands of British and French soldiers. The film follows all involved, whether tracking men hoping to heroes or those praying to be survivors.

While it is Nolan's most straightforward story, he, of course, can't make it too simplistic. One element worth noting is that it is told through three varied perspectives: of land, of air, and of sea. Honestly, when I initially heard of this approach, I thought they were going to tell it through each perspective individually and tell the story in a way that would be something akin to Pulp Fiction crossed with, like, Saving Private Ryan. But no, it is all concurrently, thus providing a more linear structure.

I must be honest that, while it assuredly makes sense in the context, I was sort of intrigued by the concept of telling each individually and then, maybe tying it all together near the end. Because Nolan goes with, well, the normal way, it does become a little less riveting, if one were hoping for something more lyrical and acutely disjointed. However, where the genius lies is his pitch-perfect timing and conglomeration of the three perspectives. At a piecemeal pace, sea becomes the sworn antagonist of land and water, representing capriciousness and the contingent aftermath of defeat. Land seems to symbolize security and air symbolizing freedom, but sea manages to threaten the nature of both of them. It's the ironic, hapless center of it all, even moreso than any other force.

That sense of dread and uncertainty lingers coldly and mercilessly throughout the film. Nolan is a sage when it comes to the usage of sound. He uses his dialogue sparingly and meagerly, which begets moments of silence, particularly in the first few minutes, that create a blunt, unwavering atmosphere of ambiguity. The mood of the film is personified through Hans Zimmer's august, crazily ambitious score. Zimmer shrewdly inserts dynamics and tempos in a way that feels as if he, himself, is experiencing the moment. The sound design perfectly captures all the nuances of the situation. When a bombing is coming closer, it begins muffled and increases in power. When fellow soldiers try to transport an injured soldier to safety, it almost begins routinely triumphant, but proceeds to grow more frantic, chaotic, and formidable, much like the situation at hand.

The music is probably the most expressive, vibrant character of the film, as is the cinematography. When the camera focuses on an actor, it is just that: focused. It is pointed and searingly contemplative, as if it wants penetrate through the characters' souls and psyches. Consider a scene after a group of soldiers recuperate after an air raid. Gibson, played by Aneurin Barnard, stays outside the ship and the camera fixates on his plaintive, hauntingly foretelling, afflicted eyes, as he almost predicts the ship being torpedoed before it gets torpedoed. Speaking of which, the grandiose cinematography is also apt at displaying whopping battle scenes and painful imagery, such as a wave of ducking soldiers during an air raid.

Because the technical aspects do such a tremendous job delivering raw emotions, the characters surprisingly enough aren't as heavily emphasized. However, they all are fortified by interminably capable and amicably convincing actors. Yes, even Harry Styles. His role, again, isn't heavily punctuated, but it does make his, and every other actor's role, more human. However, his abilities do come into the spotlight in a moment where his character is prodded to be all parts desperate, vulnerable, and paranoid. Other standouts include Kenneth Branaugh (duh), Jack Lowden as Collins, the determined, resolute pilot, and Cillian Murphy, who immerses himself as a soldier unbearably beset by the mayhem at hand.

However, as much as I admire the film, I would call it masterful, not immaculate. Given how he does, admittedly, have to surrender, or moreso keep in check, his propensities for his unbridled, complex story structures, it often does feel like a punctiliously detailed account of the Dunkirk evacuation; a historical guide, if you will. Because of this, the characters don't always feel specific. At times, they feel more like figures that happen to take a part in this salient historical event, which makes the handling of them feel slightly aloof at certain points. Also, I felt that, with all the film's grave, morbid discussions and demonstrations of survival, the ending was too easily intrepid and sentimentally positive, minus a gripping final shot. I understand it was, all in all, a positive turnout, but I felt that the grittiness and gravitas of those earlier moments was somewhat stunted and abandoned for the expected, bold, God-bless-our-heroes ending. Maybe Nolan was trying for a Spielberg moment or something. Given the ending to Private Ryan, you might not want to go too heavy-handed, Nolan.

Overall, Dunkirk is a brazen, magniloquent reminder of Nolan's technical, emotional, and intellectual prowesses. It may be his most accessible and most simple film to date, but Nolan at his most middling impressiveness is still better than most directors doing their damndest. And who knew that 2017, of all years, would be the year where I can finally relent in calling myself a Harry Styles fan. I don't whether this is a fluke or a sign of greater things to ensue, but the ante has been upped. The remaining members have to really up their game, in order to compete with you.

Who am I kidding? They won't.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

You know, it seems as if life is formulated to plague and beleaguer us with regrets. One of mine is that I never got around to reviewing Fast & Furious 6 after I saw it in theaters in Philadelphia. In fact, I never tackled any of the Fast & Furious films. Given how this brand of "dick flick" are heralded as very polarizing and ripe with various perspectives, I'd rather not obfuscate or conceal mine. In summation, I admire them all for what they are and even for what they are not. But back to the sixth installment, I will share that the viewing experience was one of the most enthralling in my life. The whole audience was transfixed and invigorated on a level unseen by me at the time, hooting and cheering the entire duration of the film.

The salient reason I regret not reviewing Fast & Furious 6 is that I can't provide enough substantial context to justify and elucidate my following statement: Goddamn it! Goddamn you, Fast & Furious movies. Goddamn your tricky method of eradicating solid conclusions. Goddamn your brilliantly hypnotic promotion that never ceases to make me instantaneously surrender all currency I possess. And especially, goddamn your penchant for remaining a propulsive, addictive, entertaining franchise. I shall doubt thee nevermore.

The story, as if it matters, begins with Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) enjoying his honeymoon with his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez). However, his world is turned upside down when a secretive, ambiguous woman named Cipher (Charlize Theron, rocking a very dubious, bewildering, and sort of uncomfortable hairstyle) convinces Dom to assist her in her objective to steal both an EMF and nuclear football, all the while going against him team. When he accepts, it soon becomes Dom vs. the Furious. Or is it?

I know it's early on, but allow me to revise a prior statement, which was "the story, as if it matters..." It actually matters ever so slightly. Don't get me wrong. The film is laced with its trademark implausibilities, plot contrivances, and especially its strained, baffling lectures on morality and family. However, in the prior installments, the story was on a very rudimentary, innocuous, 13-year-old-compiling level, laying out a very lucid, step-by-step, map for the plot. Here, there's a little bit more going on. 

It actually presents their most multifaceted, intriguing storyline in the franchise. The basic set-up of betrayal and enigma heightens the stakes and the solemnity. When Dom is ensconced in Cipher, Deckerd Shaw (Jason Statham, the most recent villian in the series) is brought in to assist them. While it's not particularly innovative, the route it goes is stocked with more narrative flesh and complexities than expected. Hell, the mere fact that Letty has to deal with her husband going down a villainous trajectory is itself a wistful quandary, delivered gravely and maturely. The story fully culminates, however, with a twist revealed before the second act that is so elemental to the story that it is my obligation to not reveal it, but believe me when I say that it is the most stunning. jaw-dropping moment in the story.

When a story's conflict is fortified and elevated, it creates fodder for greater character development, which begets stronger performances from the cast. The entire cast marry their characters with the ample dosage of doughty heroism, assured guile, stalwart gravity, and audacious humor. Honestly, the majority of the cast play their pre-established roles, but to the nth degree, i.e. Tyrese's energetic comic relief, The Rock's unwavering machismo, Jason Statham's measured minatory, etc. Charlize Theron crafts one of the juiciest, most delicious villains I've seen on film in quite a while, portraying Cipher with a straightforward, calculating authority and a wicked, ferocious gleam in her eye. However, it's Vin Diesel who has shown the starkest amelioration, exhibiting a passionate pain, muddled yet desperate acumen, and a thoughtful tenderness undiscovered through his entire career until this point.

But, fuck it. Let's talk about the good stuff. Ostensibly, these action sequences were crafted by a man with a perpetual snarl and a severe teeth clench, while jacked on cocaine because visually, this film is at the apex of the franchise. If others films can pointedly punctuate their climaxes, this whole film is a climax. Highlights include a chase in Berlin that concludes with a wrecking ball demolishing a bevy of police cars, a bustling, tumultuous fight in a maximum security prison, a moment where the Furious crew has to combat a tidal wave of cars in New York, many of which are in auto-drive, and a 20-minute set piece in Russia...on ice. Every action sequence delivers with such magniloquent awe and tantalizing gusto.

In an era of such ubiquitous technology and continuous Transformers sequels (yeah, I'll be sleeping in that day), this film shows that, yes, fast, snazzy cars, booming explosions, protracted fight scenes, and endless chases can still be surprising and resplendent. It's coincidental that F. Gary Gray directed this, because in 2015, he, similarly with this film, collaborated with Caucasian screenwriters for Straight Outta Compton. With this film, he integrates the grandeur, mettle, and bold, portentous dignity of action films stereotypically marketed to white audiences with the rambunctiousness, color, and inextinguishable energy of films stereotypically marketed to black audiences. 

With this pairing, he helps further the franchise's streak of being racially unified and universal. Given how Gray's cinematic spectrum ranges from Friday and Set It Off to The Italian Job, his touch of this franchise has proven to be the most fitting. This film is a consummate popcorn flick; the most pornographic, non-pornographic film of 2017, and a film that I can proudly ennoble with the honor of being the first Fast & Furious film I've seen that ranks above three stars. Ironic, seeing how it's the first one without the presence of Paul Walker.

*nervous chuckle* R.I.P. bruh.

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four