Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Doctor Strange: Marvel on LSD

I think I'm going to advise everyone reading this that I should not be the go-to review for any Marvel movie from now on unless it's a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. I'm serious. If it involves ANY of the Avengers (unless Hawkeye ever gets his own damn movie) then DEFINITELY don't go to me. If it's Deadpool, if it's Spider-Man, hell, even if it's X-Men... you shouldn't go to me because I'm so done with Marvel. I'm not even trying to talk DC who is doing everything in its power to be its own trainwreck and deteriorate itself without me having to do it. I'm over Marvel. They're all the same damn movie. There's the origin story. We get to see a troubled person get into some sort of accident. Then they gain a power or learn a power.  Then they train.  Then they have to fight evil.  Then the mentor dies. It's the same goddamn movie every time.  Even Deadpool was the same-- they just inserted profanity and tits. Breaking the fourth wall doesn't mean breaking goddamn Marvel story structure!

However, I was more impressed with Doctor Strange than I have been with the last four years of Marvel movies (excluding, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy). I'm still fed up with Marvel... but Doctor Strange didn't exactly make me want to go out and monkey stomp an orphan-- and that's a good thing.

It took me a while to get into Doctor Strange.  It was hard for me to get immersed in the story and actually care about superhero #13048558930 who will get four or five of his own movies and spliced in and out of Avengers movies and show up in random post-credit Marvel scenes... but after awhile I did. It was mostly due to Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch plays Strange, a brilliant doctor, but an arrogant asshole. Once he's in a car crash and his hands are essentially destroyed, he loses faith in life because he can't surgeon no mo'. He seeks answers, but life keeps kicking him in the balls. Until one day, he's told to go to Nepal and visit with "The Ancient One" (a bald Tilda Swinton). There he's told about (the proper names in the rest of this review have been replaced with nonsense words due to the fact that there were too many, they're too hard to remember, and I'm not doing any extra work for you, Marvel) the dark dimension place. The catscratchers have learned how to manipulate space and time, but in our dimension.  They also protect our dimension from the dark dimension and this giant evil face known as Doormouse. He's given a little finger-didgeridoo to spin holes in the world and sort of portal himself from place to place.  Then, there's this evil follower who used to be a catscratcher but now he's a Doormouse guy named Castlehouse and he's trying to take down the protections of our dimension.  Lost? Yeah, fuckin probably.

It's actually not as confusing as it sounds. The story does a pretty good job of laying everything out first, then giving extra explanation and finally, showing how everything works the way it does. What made me actually start to care about the film is that, even though this is still the typical Marvel origin film... the back half (when I started to really enjoy the movie) isn't typical back-half Marvel origin film.  What I mean by that is that when Strange has finally "completed" his training and has to engage in combat with the bad guy, it felt like a new movie. It didn't follow the same superhero tropes that the others fall into all too easily.  The big CGI battle at the end isn't a good guy vs. main movie villain.  It's actually something that makes sense to this particular story and isn't written in order to wow your 3D glasses with a bullshit explosion or two.  It's actually very cleverly written-- complete with callbacks and everything. It's also... forgive me.... strange as hell. When the Doc is being zipped throughout time and space it's like watching Pink Floyd's The Wall while listening to Phish on actual LSD.  It's gorgeous, but it's a trip down a freaky visual kaleidoscope that may or may not make or break the movie for you.

Cumberbatch is also very good in the film.  He's an arrogant douchebag, but he's quippy and quick. He's got a smarmy retort to everything and while it does make him come off as a sleazeball, most of them are actually pretty funny.  I read somewhere that Dan Harmon came in and did an uncredited rewrite of the film (my guess is sprucing up the dialogue) and it makes sense because the quick-witted nature of Strange's character is reminiscent to the fast-paced verbal wordplay of Community. Though I will say it was a mistake to give him an American accent.  One of the reasons we like him so much is the smug British accent that accompanies that alluring oblong face. And somehow... somehow... a bald Tilda Swinton didn't come off as EITHER hokey OR racist. There's reason for her character to be white (not really a reason for the baldness but DGAF), but she's actually very good as well.  She takes Cumberbatch's flung insults with impenetrable poise and her own ornery smile across her face.

So while the first half of the movie does feel like your standard Marvel movie fare, the second half really presents something new. It's beautiful to watch, it's not the same song and dance, and it's really quite enjoyable if you stick it out (especially if you dig tie-dye). I'm not saying I was entirely won over to the character or the eventual series it is destined to become, but it's not one that I'm going to openly bash. It may be the new Marvel benchmark I continue to say every Marvel movie couldn't live up to. I'm sure everyone who has wanted to see it has seen it already and those who are THROUGH with watching superhero fodder (like I keep claiming to be) and refuse to see it will never watch it. But, if you're one who is on the fence, I say go for it. It's so visually captivating that it deserves to be watched on the big screen. Damn you Cumberbatch... I say that I'm through and you drag me right back in.  I had scruples! Well... I still haven't seen Batman v. Superman... that has to count for something, right?


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Allied: Casablanca Meets No Way Out

I think it's been decided that Brad Pitt should just make World War II movies. Yeah, The Big Short was great and yeah, World War Z was a lot more fun than it was supposed to be.  But, in the last seven years his best movies have been Inglourious Basterds and Fury.  Now, he's starring in Allied alongside Marion Cotillard and directed by one of my favorite Directors, Robert Zemeckis. However, unlike his previous WWII movies, Allied is something of a different beast. It's slower and adds tension little by little over the its two hour run time. It's gorgeously shot, perfectly acted, and very well-executed. If Mr. and Mrs. Smith wasn't a popcorn movie, and was set in the 1940s, it would've wound up pretty damn close to Allied.

Pitt, in a quiet role, plays Max Vatan, an intelligence officer teamed up with Marianne Beauséjour to act as a married couple in French Morocco to assassinate a Nazi Ambassador. This is the first hour of the film. Marianne takes Max around the city, coaching him in the ways a Parisian would act around these particular social circles, flaunting him to her newly acquired friends, and planning their assassination.  All the while the two are slowly, but surely, falling in love. The first hour does move slowly, but effectively. There are long, drawn-out lulls in story, but during these moments we're being showcased our two fine acting leads as well as Zemeckis' talents behind the camera. The second hour, as you've already seen in the trailers, is where the real tension begins. Max is told that his now wife, Marianne, is suspected of being a German spy. Max is to test her over a three day period and await the results, once and for all proving if she is, indeed, selling secrets to the other side.

Now, it might've just been me, but I personally felt that Zemeckis did a fabulous job of building tension at a snail's pace to perfection. The moment Max and Marianne are introduced the tension begins and rises every so slowly throughout the progression of the story. While the stakes of the first hour are different than the stakes of the second hour, those looking for a spy thriller may be a tad bored with the first half. The first half is character and relationship building. The second half is trying to solve the puzzle. But what works so well about the first hour is that we're able to care for these characters and not entirely trust them at the same time. Marianne is great at her job, which makes us question every decision she makes throughout the remainder of the film. Is she exactly who she says she is? Is she actually a spy? Is her marriage to Max entirely a sham? This is what the first hour accomplishes. No one in the theater will be able to answer any of these questions with any sort of certainty until the big "reveal" at the end. And even that is subdued. Zemeckis isn't trying to make some sort of big war/spy blockbuster. It's more Frank Capra kills Nazis kind of a thing. Zemeckis is able to combine romantic movie elements with spy thriller movie elements as well as I've seen in a while (it's pretty much the opposite of The Tourist).

Lately, Pitt has been a lot more modest and reserved in his acting choices. Since his quirky character of Aldo in Inglourious, his roles in The Tree of Life, Moneyball, Killing Them Softly, etc. have been compiled of very restrained characters. It's working well. In fact, his role as Max in this film is even more so and it couldn't have been more effective. Max is a man of few words, and even though he is a fine soldier/spy, his eyes tend to tell a completely different story than his words. Cotillard is stellar as well. She's carries such confidence in her expressions and mannerisms that she reeks of suspicion. Even if the film isn't exactly perfect in every way, the actors we're given the privilege to watch marvel enough for the cost of a ticket.

The film takes it sweet time telling this story and it's not a twisty-and-turny ride of action and espionage. It's more like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy if it revolved around a love story and wasn't, you know, a complete snoozefest. There is an ever growing sense of tension until the end when it's too hard to take that your heart may nervously beat out of your chest. But, to get to this point, you will need to sit back and relax and enjoy the build. And, since everyone is so keen on petitioning everything under the political sun these days... why don't we start one up right now that says Brad Pitt must make at least one WWII movie every other year? He has yet to let us down thus far.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge: A Fantastic And Necessary Tale Of Heroism

I'm going to begin this review by acknowledging the fact that Mel Gibson is a garbage human. The misogyny, the racism, the anti-semitism, and the general lack of a moral center toward most people is deplorable and should be treated as such. However, this does not transcend to Mel Gibson-- the actor. Martin Riggs is a genuinely good human being. William Wallace has all of the necessary qualities to be deemed a hero. And William Wallace deserves your damn respect. This also qualifies for Mel Gibson-- the director. Now, some are unable to separate these different Gibsons due to the fact that the "real" one is a goddamn maniac. I understand this and will not try and dissuade you. But I am not one of them. I can successfully separate myself from Mel Gibson garbage heap and Mel Gibson gifted director. Gibson's latest movie, a WWII drama, is as close as he has been to the success of Braveheart, and legitimately one of the best WWII movies I've ever seen next to Saving Private Ryan.

WWII movies are as pervasive in film as boxing movies. As soon as you think you've seen everything WWII has to offer, another one rears its ugly head-- and there's never really a bad one (okay... I remember Pearl Harbor too). The latest entry is the story of Army Medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), WWII's first conscientious objector.  Doss's objections to firing (or even touching) a weapon stems from his childhood raised by very religious parents and an alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) suffering from PTSD from the first world war. Doss is sent to boot camp and labeled a 'coward' by his Sargent (Vince Vaughn) and even court martialed for failing to follow direct orders. Eventually he's sent into battle as a medic and winds up saving the lives of (an estimated) 75 lives.

While a lot of WWII movies tend to regurgitate the same story of the heroism of soldiers in battle, Hacksaw Ridge gives moviegoers something more. Doss is not your typical hero. He's not a sniper who was awarded the medal of honor for taking 200 plus lives. He's a scared southern [weirdo] kid trying to do right by himself and his faith. His heroism transcends battle. He goes back and forth on the battle field without a single weapon to protect himself. If he's attacked, it's a losing battle. But, this kid isn't concerned with himself. His entire motivation is to bring soldiers home-- alive. It's a story that not only should've been told, but needed to have been told.

This is where I'm able to separate myself with the Gibsons. This story in other hands would've wound up a very paint-by-numbers film. Boy grows up, boy falls in love, boy enlists, boy is sent to boot camp, boy goes to war, boy is hero. And while all of these moments do happen in the film, Gibson transcends typical biopic story structure. He's able to create a very real character, with very real and ironclad beliefs and give him the movie he deserves. And while Hacksaw Ridge isn't the same caliber as Braveheart, there has been significant growth in his directorial skills. He doesn't shy away from the grotesque during war, but he also doesn't linger on gruesome images for the sake of showing gruesome images. There are moments of graphic intensity (like watching rats gnaw on corpses) but every moment has a purpose. Nothing about the film, or the character, seems counterfeit.

The biggest proponent of a the film that could've gone very stereotypical is the role of Desmond's father. He's an abusive drunk in the south and does everything in his power to hold back his sons from enlisting in the war. Hugo Weaving brings a sadness and humanity to the character that a lesser actor wouldn't have. He doesn't even need to speak... he wears all of his emotions in his eyes. Andrew Garfield is fantastic as well. His accent seems a bit hokey, and it's very clear that this real human being would've been annoying to the point of obnoxious, but when you watch the clip of the real Desmond Doss at the end, you can tell Garfield was very on point. Vince Vaughn brings a nice blend of humor and realism to his Drill Sargent character. He's not trying to be R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket... he's Vince Vaughn as a sarcastic, but sympathetic Drill Sargent. Finally, Sam Worthington is in this film. I've seriously grown tired of Hollywood trying to make him a thing. He's an average looking white dude who blends in with all other Hollywood average looking white dudes and there's genuinely nothing special about it. His first appearance on screen had me rolling my eyes... but he proved me wrong here. He was actually very subdued and great in his role. Seriously, everything about this movie was great.

I have a feeling that this movie will go entirely under the radar as far as Oscar season goes. Mel Gibson, because he is a garbage human, will most likely get this film overlooked, which is a shame. Had someone like Clint Eastwood made the film, it would be a shoo-in for a Best Picture nom. And because of the slew of holiday movies rushing into theaters, Hacksaw Ridge is already being aggressively nudged out. It's a movie that should be seen in theaters, but if you're unable to, it should be seen regardless. It's characters like Desmond Doss that are the reason biopics became a real thing. But, unlike a lot of humans who don't deserve to have their story told, Doss's story is a necessary story, especially today. There's no reason not to stand up for what you believe in, even if all you have to fight with is that belief.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them: It's No HP, But It'll Do

I began the Harry Potter books as a young lad and became enthralled by them.  I wanted to be a wizard myself, I wanted to go to Hogwarts, I wanted to be besties with Ron, and I wanted to eat a chocolate frog.  I read the first four books of the series in the span of just a few weeks and then I had to wait for the fifth. This was between middle school and high school. By the time I got to high school, Harry Potter wasn't cool anymore, so I stopped wanting the magic in favor of wanting not to be ridiculed.  They had started producing the movies, so I decided to just watch them instead. Fast forward to just a few months ago, when I realized that Harry Potter wasn't just for kids, but actually one of the best book series ever written. I picked up the fifth book and, once again, in just a few weeks I sped through the last three books and thoroughly enjoyed them. (I'm an idiot for not reading them first and already knowing how they ended.  I wish I could go back and read them fresh for the first time). So, consider me a Potter fan and, I guess, excited for anything in the extended universe.  This is why I became interested in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Though it isn't as strong as any of the Potter books, the film does capture a lot of that JK Rowling magic we've seen from her time and time again.

Instead of mid-90s to current day England, we're in 1920s New York City. A young lad by the name of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts. Once in the city, there becomes a mix-up with his case and the case of a budding baker, Kowalski (Dan Fogler)... who is also a No-Maj (American word for Muggle-- aren't we creative)... and a few of Newt's beasts escape. An ex-auror (Katherine Waterston), trying to get in better standing with the MACUSA (American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) arrests Newt and tries to bring him before the President of Wizards, but is interrupted by an ongoing investigation of an invisible beast attacking No-Majes by Graves (Colin Farrell).  Finally, there's another sub-plot of the evil head of a foster home and founder of a group called the New Salemers out to prove witchcraft is real and bring all witches and wizards to death.  Beside her is her awkward, quiet, Kylo Ren-y foster son Credence (Ezra Miller). If it sounds like there's a lot going on and it's a bit exhausting, then you're right. But that doesn't mean it's not quite a bit of fun.

Fantastic Beasts does have its faults. There is a bit too much going on at times and too little going on at times. The first half of the movie is essentially just Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler chasing beasts and trying to get them back into the suitcase. What we aren't getting is much character building and development.  There is certainly a lot of world building going on (if there's going to be five more movies, there has to be a significant amount of built up), but it seemed to focus less on our hero. By the middle of the movie, I felt like I still didn't really know Newt and that was a problem for me. Rowling is so good at character, that I felt he wasn't being given his due.  By the end of the film, I knew him much better, but still not as much as I'd like. By the end of the movie there were a few characters (two large parts of the story) that didn't seem to really matter in the grand scheme of THIS story (who knows about the future). However, the second half of the movie is really where the film shines. Every story arc and side plot comes together perfectly to form a very entertaining, and surprisingly very dark, magical story.

David Yates, director of the last four Potter movies is at the helm once more, and it's clear he has a passion for the world. The movie is gorgeous to watch (though we ended up seeing it in 3D and that was a terrible choice) and the beasts themselves are, indeed, fantastic. There is one 'beast' that looks a bit like a duck-billed platypus, with a penchant for stealing shiny coins that will really melt your heart. The end of the film is a great payoff to set up a very nice sequel (as for five... who knows). Redmayne, along with Rowling's writing, have set up a very fun character with just enough quirkiness and weirdness and goo-goo eyes and bravado to make the audience want to adventure with him a second time. Dan Fogler (yes, the dude from Balls of Fury and Good Luck Chuck) shines as the No-Maj with the heart of gold. We're so used to Fogler hamming it up that it was nice to see him play the character as reserved and sweet (even as the comic relief). Finally, Waterston's character, Tina, is a bit of a toss up for me as far as effectiveness. She's a very by-the-book-no-nonesense character to a fault, but some of her choices seem to contradict others and it doesn't end up making a whole lot of sense. This, unfortunately, leads you to dislike the character for much of the movie, knowing full well her moment of redemption will come. The question is, does it come too late for you? It might've for me. It's on the cusp. We'll see how it turns out in the next movie.

The one thing that does kind of suck about Fantastic Beasts is that it's not Harry Potter. Those of us who have read the books (yes, I can now lump myself into this) and watched the movies and dove head first into the world... have a lightning bolt-shaped hole in our hearts because we're not getting anymore stories. And while it is nice to get back into the world... it's not Harry Potter. And while Newt Scamander is a worthy protagonist for a new world of American wizardry... it's not Harry PotterFantastic Beasts is a lot like watching Better Call Saul.  It's very good for what it is... but it's no Breaking Bad. It does, however, look like Warner Bros. has their first glimpse of a new, very successful future franchise. If Yates and Rowling continue to produce quality like this... then we may very well fall in love with Scamander nearly as much as we did with the Potter gang.  Nearly.

Finally, don't see this movie in 3D. In fact, don't see any movie in 3D.  It's just the worst.


Friday, November 11, 2016

Arrival: The Story Of Our Lives

Aliens come down to Earth. They set twelve of their ships in twelve different locations all over the planet. They attempt to communicate with us, but their language is so advanced we can't make out if it's words of peace or of war. What do we do? Like, honestly, what do we do? In light of recent election events it's hard to ponder a scenario that doesn't involve acts motivated by fear of the unknown. We've shown, as a nation, that a majority of our decisions are motivated by fear.  I'm not just talking about Trump tactics of shipping Muslims out of the country and banning them from coming back in.  I'm talking even like taking a movie out of theaters because there's been a threat from North Korea that if theaters show this film, there will be an attack on our country. What do we do? We pulled the movie from all major theater chains... out of fear. There was never going to be an attack. But we acted out of fear.  Fear is such a powerful motivating factor, especially when it comes as a threat to humanity's way of life. And there are powerful decisions that often need to be made by people in power. Decisions that can be swayed by fear... or by love. These are the themes explored in Arrival. Decisions based on fear or love can both result in undesirable consequences, but if we already know the outcome, do we still proceed?

Arrival is my favorite kind of sci-fi film. It's not loud and explosive. It's not bogged down with heavy action or CGI.  It's a quiet, slow build favoring intellect over carnage. The tone of it reminded me of last year's Ex Machina. In Arrival we follow Louise (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor, who lives alone with the constant memory of her broken family: a husband who left and a daughter who's died. When alien ships appear in twelve spots around the globe, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits Louise in order for her to be able to figure out a means of conversing with the aliens (mostly to find out if they're here to f**k our s**t up or not). Along the way is Ian (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician there to aid Louise in figuring out the complex structure of the alien language. When Louise figures out that contact is better suited with visual symbols than actual speaking, the rush is on to figure out who these aliens exactly are and what these aliens exactly want before one of the eleven other countries dealing with the same problem panics and declares war on the visitors.

This is the heart of the movie. Amy Adams is the perfect person to cast because she wears her entire character in her eyes. She's subdued and vulnerable, yet tough and not ready to make snap decisions based on fear of the unknown. When she translates one of the words from the aliens to be 'weapon', she doesn't automatically want to rush to the conclusion that they're here to start a war. She uses her brain (what a crazy concept) to conclude that the term 'weapon' and the term 'tool' are so close in meaning that either side could misinterpret. Other countries/people hear 'weapon' and it's such a violently loaded word that fear takes over and panic ensues. But the movie doesn't snap into the District 9 type of alien v. human battle one might expect. We stay with Louise. We watch her make informed decisions based on logic and reason, rather than irrational judgements that could start a nuclear war.

The movie is beautifully shot and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) who commits to the genre. This is a thinking-person's sci-fi and he doesn't build up to an ending only to cheapen it with computer-animated battle sequences. In fact, the ending of this film is so beautifully poetic, anyone looking for a District 9-type sci-fi will probably be sorely disappointed. I don't want to give too much of the film away. It's better to go in knowing only minimal information about the film and just let it play out. The science behind the movie is perfect which lead to beautiful visuals and gorgeous filmmaking/story telling. This will not be a movie that I soon forget and if you're close enough to me that we talk every so often, I probably will be recommending it to you several times. It's not to be missed. And it's the movie we all desperately need, especially right now.