Thursday, December 22, 2016

Movie Review: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" by David Pretty


CAUTION: SPOILERS AFOOT!


The movie starts soooooo bad. But then it gets soooo good, soooo quick.


If you can't already tell, I'm a tad conflicted when it comes to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first half, with its endless parade of new words, anemic character snippets and boring exposition is so shockingly ham-fisted that it nearly sinks the entire picture. But then suddenly everything jumps into hyperspace and the flick becomes incredibly thrilling. I can't recall the last time I watched a movie that was so... schizophrenic.

Ever since I saw Rogue One I've been trying to pin down precisely why it starts off so poorly. I think screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy along with director Gareth Edwards should have given us more time with Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso, the way we had time establishing Luke in Star Wars

Yeah, sorry, fuck that Episode IV / New Hope shite, btw.


The only characterization we get for Jyn is that her dad was taken away, her mom was killed and she ended up in a hole until a family friend pulled her out. Then we smash cut to twenty years into the future and see her in jail. We don't see why she got arrested or what she's been doing to warrant an arrest. We just get a fully-formed, bitter, nihilistic "rebel" who understandably wants revenge on the Empire. Otherwise we know precious little else about her.

Diego Luna's Cassian Andor doesn't fare much better. We first see him meeting with a skittish informant during the first half's endless cavalcade of clunky, workmanlike planetary stops. After getting the information he needs, he casually blasts the dude in the back to shut him up. The idea of a morally-ambiguous Rebel Alliance is super interesting to me, which is why I was super disappointed when this wasn't explored at all. In fact, the only insight we get into Cassian's background is some vague talk later on about how he's been doing this "since he was six". Well, c'mon...pull up a space chair, pour yourself a blue milk, sit down and tell us all about it! What, no time for that? Okay, then, on to the next planet! 

Instead of investing time in our two leads we get these bland little vignettes meant to set up the supporting characters. Riz Ahmed as Imperial pilot defector Bodhi Rook really gets screwed here. Armed with a decent script he really could have been the flinty, grudgingly-accepted part of an inevitable triumvirate between Jyn and Cassian. But, no, instead he's flash-sketched with some throw-away lines of dialogue just like everyone else. We're meant to believe that he was inspired by Jyn's dad, Galen Erso (stoically played by Mads Mikkelsen) but we don't see why. It kills me to to say this, but Rogue One has a downright deplorable "show, don't tell" track record.


Oh, and don't tell me that this was in Catalyst or some other shit. I shouldn't need to read a fucking tie-in novel to give a shit about the characters. 

Even when a guerrilla-style action set piece finally meandered into the first half of the film, I just kinda sat there feeling disengaged. Watching wave after wave of extras dressed like storm troopers falling down on cue, I actually started to feel kinda sorry for the boys in white. Which is something that I never felt a twinge of while watching the original trilogy. I hated the storm troopers for killing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and for blasting at my on-screen friends at every opportunity. Here the stormtroopers just seem like just poor, sad jobbers out on patrol. To see them slaughtered in endless waves by interchangeable characters is oddly wince-inducing. 

I think the first half of the film really could have benefited from excising some of the superfluous characters. First off, I would have chucked Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera under the walker, since he's only there to pull Jyn out of the bunker, torture Bodhi with an incongruous Hentai tentacle porn monster and then expire in a scene that's less noble and more script convenience. I get the impression he's mainly there to provide some connective tissue to the Rebels cartoon.


Despite of the fact that both characters are likely there just to appeal to the emerging Chinese theater-going market, I wouldn't want to jettison Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus and particularly Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe. Mainly because both of these guys make me feel like I'm watching West End Game's Star Wars: the Role Playing Game - The Movie. Unfortunately, they're given so little screen time that they end up being about as deep as the two-line character template descriptions in that venerable, ol' RPG. And frankly, that sucks, since I love the idea of a guy who's Force sensitive but doesn't have any direct connection to light sabers and Jedi lore.

All of this makes me wonder why I didn't connect with these character very much, and I think I know why. In addition to my aforementioned case for Luke in Star Wars, we don't even meet Han Solo until about a third of the way into that same film. So why is Han so memorable and why do I have to keep looking up the names of the characters Rogue One over and over again? Well, the devil is in the details, kiddies.

As soon as Harrison Ford shows up on screen we can tell that he's a boundless font of charisma. The script isn't afraid to take a knee for a moment and let the characters talk about more than just the next action item on their galactic things-to-do list. By the time the Falcon reaches 'splody Alderaan, Ford has taken the on-point dialogue and presented it such a way as to illustrate Han as a cynical, cocksure, blowhard who exudes calm cool and undeniable skill. 


The same goes for Leia. Beyond talking sass to Tarkin and Vader throughout the entire film, we feel as if we've known her for years after she's sprung from that Death Star detention block. Carrie Fisher's spunky performance, on screen verve and flinty dialogue speaks volumes about the kind of person she is: I.E. she's highly-capable, no-nonsense and physically incapable of taking shit from anyone. Except for maybe Jyn, no-one in Rogue One gets the same consideration.

And I honestly feel bad for young people who mistake on screen bad-assery and a few casual lines of dialogue as character development. I related to Luke in Star Wars not because he was male, but because he wanted to get away from boring ol' Tatooine. He craved adventure and excitement and he also had some interesting flaws to deal with. I liked Rey in The Force Awakens for many of the same reasons, but ultimately she was so fucking perfect at everything that she didn't come across to me as a real, three-dimensional character.

Poor characterization and muddled first act aside, Rogue One miraculously "switches on" midway through and becomes the Star Wars movie of my dreams. Ben Mendelsohn effectively stamps around as Inspector Orson Krennic, having encounters with established villains that makes perfect sense within the movie's timeline. Regardless of what you may hear to the contrary, I think these scenes are highly effective and used sparingly.


The infiltration of Scarif base and the subsequent ground and space battle are undeniably thrilling. The special effects are absolutely exquisite in the sense that everything, especially the Star Destroyers, actually look like plastic models. The irony isn't lost on me but I should stress that the tactile environments, physical props and on-set droids and creature really give the film that classic "lived in" Star Wars look.

Now, some people are bitching that these cameos and call backs are gratuitous fan service but I tend to pronounce "fan service" as "continuity". Look, if I was making a film set in this classic rebellion era, a herd of wild Banthas couldn't prevent me from include some of my favorite classic characters. The only issue is that some of them show up as distractingly-obvious CGI models and spout quippy one-liners that comes across as slightly out of character. 

I also wish that they'd been more creative on the design side of things. With this being the earliest film in the rebellion era, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase some technological evolution. In other words, it would have been great to see prototype AT-ST's and AT-AT's instead of seeing this same exact things that pop up later on in the trilogy. 


And trust me, there's no shortage of awesome shit in the Lucasfilm archives; just a quick glance through my old Empire Strikes Back art book proves that! Instead, the visual impact of these vehicles will be diminished somewhat when they pop up later on in the saga. But, hey, I guess the masses might be puzzled by something familiar but not identical, so I guess we should just spoon feed them exactly what they want, amirite?

Admittedly, the last act of the film is a jaw-dropping tour de force, no pun intended. Jyn and Cassian go through pure hell to recover those data tapes, including having to deal with a mini-game that looks like an homage to George Lucas's THX-1138. All of this is juxtaposed against a backdrop of brutal, unflinching combat that might result in hordes of regretful parents wishing that they'd just stayed home on Christmas Day. This is no more apparent than in the agonizing fate of Alan Tudyk's appropriately-emo droid K-2SO who's denouement will leave no eye in the house thoroughly moistened.

And that's one genuine positive I can say about the film. All bets are off. None of these characters appear in future continuity so everyone is expendable and the stakes are pretty darned high. More the pity, then, that the script didn't give us more time with these people. It would have made the final act feel less like a hollow spectacle and more like an impactful Greek tragedy. 




Tilt: down.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Movie Review: "Ghostbusters" by David Pretty

Nostalgia can be a pretty powerful thing. Movies that were originally nothing more than nominal, high-concept diversions can eventually morph into full-blown cultural phenomenons over time.


When Ghostbusters first came out in 1984 I was fourteen years old. And, just like everyone else, I enjoyed the movie. But did I think that it would become fodder for today's rabid fandom? NOPE. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing was a failed franchise after the obligatory and scattershot sequel manifested itself in five years later and promptly evaporated from sight.

But unbeknownst to me, a tsunami of toys and cartoons featuring The Real Ghostbusters was turning an impressionable generation of kids into life-long devotees. In fact, many people in their mid-thirties look at Ghostbusters the same way I look at Star Wars. That's why the 2009 video game sequel was so successful and, conversely, why this year's patently-mercenary and wholly needless reboot got the collective cold shoulder.

Granted, there are infinitely more baffling things to me, such as the adult beatification of Transformers, Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, Power Rangers, Pokemon, and Masters of the Universe. Mainly because all of these things were initially created primarily for the express purpose of selling toys and other ancillaries. Which makes you wonder: what exactly is the statute of limitations on nostalgia? Do we need to brace ourselves for the inevitable but-no-less-passionate Teletubbies resurgence in a few years?

Now, I'm not saying that you can't feel wistful about whatever pop culture detritus that you were weaned on, but the adult human who lords a two-hour Nintendo commercial like The Wizard over the collective works of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese is doing themselves a tremendous disservice. We all collectively need to face the cold, hard fact that many things from our childhood are just not worth dwelling on.

 
As for Ghostbusters, even though I don't think we should be treated like some sort of pop-culture Golden Calf, it still deserves some adoration. The four leads are a major reason for this, forever preserved here in celluloid amber. What amazes me is how distinctly different these four characters are and how clearly delineated their motivations are.

Take Bill Murray's Peter Venkman for example, who seems to be only nominally interested in parapsychology. In fact, you get the distinct impression that he just meandered into it in a likely-misguided effort to meet women. Murray's dry wit is on fleek and he's personally responsible for the lion's share of the film's funniest moments, many of which are delivered so casually that you suspect they were improvised. When he mutters "I feel so funky!" after his close encounter with Slimer, it cracks me up every time.

Then there's Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz, a goofy, exuberant man-child who literally gets a ghost-induced boner at one point in the film. Ray is Aykroyd's perfect avatar since he's completely obsessed with paranormal stuff in real life. He does a great job in the film, selling Ray's fetish-like interest in all things spectral. The scene where he brings The Destructor into being is perfectly played and has become the stuff of cinema legend.  

Next up is Harold Ramis, who's Egon Spengler has to be considered one of the best cinematic "eggheads". Ramis is note-perfect: oblivious to social niceties, consistently odd in behavior and every one of his line readings is exactly the same. Whether he's telling Janine about his collecting of "spores, mold and fungus" or confessing that he's "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought", everything he says is flawlessly deadpan. 

 
Finally Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore is the perfect every man, mirroring the incredulity of the audience. Affable, easy-going and possessed of a winning smile, Ernie Hudson just oozes on-screen charisma. The thing is, he's isn't just a sounding board for all things spooky, he's also exhibits the chops required to deliver the chills. Hudson exhibits such sincere conviction regarding his theories about the afterlife during his scene with Dan Ackroyd in the Ecto-1, he ends up giving us all serious case of the wiggins.

And, hey, what about that amazing supporting cast? First off, we've got an alternately winsome and feisty pre-Aliens Sigourney Weaver who later on becomes impossibly sultry while playing host to Zuul, the Gatekeeper. Also, seeing Rick Moranis in action makes me wish that hadn't turned his back on Hollywood, since I still think he's one of the funniest carbon-based life forms on the planet. Finally, Annie Potts is a real hoot as the prototypically-bitchy Brooklyn secretary Janine Melnitz.

Even though the olde-skool practical puppetry, miniatures and optical effects can be slightly creaky at times, this just adds to the film's goofy charm. I challenge anyone to maintain a straight face when Venkman starts berating Ray for inadvertently incarnating the "Stay Puft Marshmallow Man". On the other hand, I'm also open-minded enough to admit that the movie isn't wall-to-wall comedy gold. In fact, many of the "humorous" exchanges are kinda forced and some of one liners are pretty weak.

In spite of this, it's still a ton of fun watching all of these kooky ideas gel reasonably-well together. Only in the wonderful world of movies is such a strange high concept even possible. By the time the boys are bombing around the streets of New Yawk in the Ecto-1, trashing hotel ballrooms and getting "slimed", all to the tune of Ray Parker Jr's eponymous hit, you can't help but be on-board.


As I said before, some things aren't worthy of nostalgia, especially when you revisit them as an adult. But  Ghostbusters is certainly one of those rare and wonderful exceptions.

  
        Tilt: up.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An Important Announcement...

Greetings, Movie Mavens!

You might have noticed that there haven't been any new reviews posted here lately. If you care to know the boring reason why, you can find all the gory details right here.

Soooo, between the fact that I'm rarely if ever indoors during the summer, currently holding down part-time night job at night and getting paid to write in some capacity, I don't have any time for recreational blogging right now. The precious little time I have left is being funneled into working on my second novel.

One of my goals this fall / winter is to start up a website in an effort to monetize the massive archive of work you see here and create a home for future reviews. In the interim, this blog will continue to be the default landing ground for any new content that will most likely still appear thanks to a windfall of free time that inevitably comes from being trapped indoors all winter.

Related to that, if anyone out there reads this and would like to retain my services to write something review-related, hit me up. Being paid to write is cool and all, but I'd much rather be talking about creative / artistic  endeavors than cobbling together corporate profiles and retirement home editorials.

Cheers, Me Dears!  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: "Edge of Tomorrow" by David Pretty

 
I gotta say, folks, this one came out of the blue and pleasantly surprised me. I was expecting an addle-brained dollop of sci-fi schlock à la the remake of Total Recall but instead got Dragon's Lair: The Motion Picture crossed with Groundhog Day.


THE ELEVATOR PITCH

A feckless media-relations military officer named Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) unexpectedly finds himself at the front line of a desperate battle against a vicious race of alien invaders dubbed the Mimics.

Not only does this offensive fail miserably, Cage is snuffed out almost immediately, but not before blasting a rare alien boss and getting marinated in its blood. Because of this gory baptism, Cage wakes up seconds later, destined to repeat the whole disastrous affair over and over again in the sort of temporal causality loop that Star Trek fans have wet dreams about.

After several failed attempts to break free of this pattern, Cage stumbles upon a fellow time-looper and war veteran Sergeant Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt. Eventually she's persuaded to whip Cage into shape, condition him to adapt to his mistakes and "reboot" him (read: put a cap in his ass) whenever things go awry.

Together they eke out a last-ditch surgical strike to defeat the enemy and save humanity but will they be able to negotiate a path to victory and how many false starts will it take to get there?


NEW IDEA OR RECYCLED GARBAGE?

Well, since I've already cited no less than three different sources that this movie culls from, I'd be hard-pressed to describe Edge of Tomorrow as wildly original. But, in the immortal words of Harry S. Plinkett "the devil's in the details, my lovelies" and the execution of this flick is what gives it considerable entertainment value.

Of particular note are the circumstances that necessitate many of the reboots and the various "trial and error" branching paths that the characters must explore to try and win the day. Basically if you've ever played a frustratingly difficult video game and you're eternally grateful for the concept of "save points", you'll at least get a few chuckles out of Edge of Tomorrow.

Notwithstanding the film's ludicrous premise which is a lot more fiction than science, about the only other issue I have with the script is that sometimes we're just flat-out told that Cage and Vrataski have experienced something before, like with the helicopter scene, for example. In a perfect world, I'd rather see this than be told it but even I know that this could easily drag out the proceedings and unravel some of the impromptu dramatic tension.

Oh, and a slightly less "shiny happy people" ending certainly would have been a lot more impactful. 


HOW DOES EVERYTHING COME TOGETHER?

Actually, the film's direction is one of it's brightest spots. Even though the script features a lot of repetition, director Doug Liman ensures that these scenes are more intrigue and amusement than monotony. Another major feather in the cap of Liman and dual editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings is just how well the action scenes are mounted. Usually blender-cut, hyperactive battles come off as lazy and disengaging to me but such is not the case with Edge of Tomorrow.

Mercifully, the same dedication that Liman and company bring to spicing up the reboot dialogue scenes is applied to the action set pieces. Between the increasingly-involved beach landings to the motor home escape to the infiltration of United Defense Force headquarters, each tilt has its own visual clarity, style and distinguishing elements.


TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

There's a lot to like here. The combat suits look pretty good if not ridiculously cumbersome to move in. Many times the actors look inadvertently comical, as if they're on the verge of falling forward onto their faces at any moment. The alien design is suitably intimidating; like a combination of the creatures from Attack the Block, which proceeded this flick, and the rathtars from The Force Awakens which followed. I also dig the quad airships, the costumes and the myriad of cool-ass weapon tech on display in the film.

But perhaps the movie's most impressive visual arsenal are the stunning and seamless special effects. Clearly the creatures are CGI but it feels as if a lot of the environments aren't. It looks to me as if real sets were utilized quite often and even when I knew I was looking at a digital artifice, it still looked durned convincing to me. Perhaps my highest praise is that the special effects made me feel immersed and embedded in the story and not the other way around. High praise indeed. 


ANYTHING UNDER THE HOOD?

So, is there anything else going on in Edge of Tomorrow above and beyond all the visceral 'splodey stuff? Welp, other than a labyrinthine plot that forces you to pay attention, the movie has a lot to say about the value of team-work, practice, bravery, growth and self-determination. But that's about as deep as it gets.


ACTING!

Aside from Tropic Thunder this could very well be my favorite Tom Cruise performance to date. Even better: Cruise has an actual character arc to work with here, starting out as an incompetent, craven jackanape and eventually growing into a brave, noble and resourceful hero. I have to give it to Cruise; he's sure-footed throughout all of these transitions.

As for Emily Blunt she's also terrific. First off she's totally ripped, so clearly she felt committed enough to the character and the script to get in stellar shape. Occasionally she defaults to this dreadful slack-jawed expression of resignation which makes her look like she's been hit in the head with a 2 x 4 but otherwise she habitually strikes an imposing figure and also has the acting chops to pull off the script's subtleties.

Mild jeers, however, for hinting at a relationship between 53-year-old Cruise and 33-year old Blunt. I've seen worse but it really underscores the double standard in Hollywood today: I.E. men can continue to be action stars well into their fifties, sixties and seventies but women can only become Peter Parker's hawt aunt. Yes, Blunt does a great job and I know she's more marketable, but I would have love to have seen an actress in her late forties or early fifties tackle this role. 

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention great supporting performances by Brendon Gleeson as the hard-to-pin-down General Brigham and Bill Paxton as the Foghorn Leghorn-esque Master Sergeant Farell.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Like I said, Edge of Tomorrow kinda took me by surprise. Amidst a tsunami of sequels, remakes and reboots, it distinguishes itself just on the merit of being different. Thankfully its also smart, engaging, well-made and rewarding in its own right.


       Tilt: up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Movie Review: "Captain America - Civil War" by David Pretty


IN A NUTSHELL

Due to a recent rash of civilian deaths and collateral damage related to super-human battles, the United Nations decides to muzzle the Avengers. Plagued by guilt after creating Ultron, Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) immediately folds quicker than Quicksilver on laundry day while Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) adamantly rejects any suggestion of government oversight. The growing rift between these two camps quickly deepens when Cap's brainwashed pal Bucky (Sebastian Stan), a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, is implicated in a high-profile terrorist attack. With sides chosen and battle lines drawn, everything builds up to the most spectacular super-hero rumble ever committed to film. Spider-Man guest stars.


IN THE WHEELHOUSE

If you want to know how The Winter Soldier pays off or, at the very least, if Joss Whedon's remaining hair loss over Age of Ultron was justified, than get in line, getcher ticket and sit yer asses down! Basically, comic fans will draw wood, general audiences will be entertained by all the imaginative punchery and critics will wonder where the hell all of this is headed.

 
PROS
  • Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to do a pretty admirable job justifying this film's existence. In spite of this some people are bitching that Tony Stark is waaaaay outta line, Steve Rogers acts far too pig-headed and civilians shouldn't be so churlish after they've been rescued by the Avengers. Based on what I've seen thus far in the series I firmly disagree on all three counts. First off, Tony was personally responsible for Ultron who, we all know, wiped out an entire city. Frankly, if I was Tony I'd be wondering why I wasn't locked up. And thanks to the events in The Winter Soldier, Steve already knows that absolutely power corrupts absolutely. He also knows that Bucky isn't acting of his own accord and has been H.Y.D.R.A.'s monkey boy all this time. As for civilians bitching about being saved, just take a minute to think about all of the moronic forms of litigation that your fellow human beings have inflicted on the legal system over the years. Even if you want to completely dismiss this out of kind, the Vision (Paul Bethany) is on fleek to drop some major science on us, noting that "In the eight years since Mr. Stark announced himself as Iron Man, the number of known enhanced persons has grown exponentially. And during the same period, a number of potentially world-ending events has risen at a commensurable rate. There may be a causality. Our very strength invites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict breeds catastrophe. Oversight is not an idea that can be dismissed out of hand." So, with these three things firmly established, I willingly crawled into the lead car, lowered the bar and proceeded to enjoy the shit outta the insane roller coaster ride that followed.
  • Not content with getting all of their logical ducks in a row, Markus and McFeely weave an intriguing "secret puppet master" story thread into the fabric of the script. When the presumptive "big" bad is finally revealed, his motivations are refreshingly small-scale. Part and parcel with this is a wonderful fake-out where a glaringly hackneyed and anticipated conflict is telegraphed in lieu of a gut-crushing revelation and a considerably more emotional show down between the two leads. * slow clap *
  • By some miracle, Anthony and Joe Russo have found a way to eclipse the action sequences in The Winter Soldier. In spite of its epic scale, the opening tiff with Crossbones (Frank Grillo) always keeps one foot firmly planted in the material world. Then comes a gritty and creatively-vicious sequence in which Cap and the Winter Soldier plow their way through an entire special forces unit while fleeing an apartment complex. This, in turn, segues into a stunning foot / car chase that belongs in the same pantheon as Bullit or The French Connection. Next up is the euphorically-fun airport rumble which is definitely the best donnybrook between a bunch of super-powered characters that we've ever seen thus far. The creative synergy produced when all of these nutty special talents interact is an absolute joy to behold and everyone gets a chance to shine. As if that wasn't enough, we get a smaller-scale, but even more emotionally satisfying, final confrontation that works like a charm simply because all of the character's motivations have been firmly established.  
  • It almost feels redundant to talk about the cast but they're still a major component of the film's success. None moreso than Chris Evans who leads the way with a stalwart and resolute portrayal of Captain America. With his propensity for proselytizing and blatant flag-wavery I've always hated the comic version of Cap. But thanks to the MCU and Evans's unearthly charisma, the character has been reborn as a no-nonsense individualist who is positively baffled by self-absorbed, weak-willed and easily-led sheeple. Since Bucky is literally his one and only connection to the past, it makes perfect sense that he'd go through hell and back to protect his friend and clear his name. Words can't express how excited I am to finally see a protagonist that sticks to his moral code, even in the face of so much compelling, if wrong-headed, adversity.
  • Some fans are also whinging that Tony Stark is, in Black Widow's parlance "uncharacteristically non-hyper-verbal" but, hey, guess what, he should be. It's called an "arc", morons! After creating Ultron in a moment of hubris and parting ways with Pepper Potts, Stark's confidence is essentially shattered. Arr Dee Jay does his usual awesome job, dialing the once-cocksure maverick down a few notches to the point where he's completely cowed and filled with doubt. Check out the genuine sorrow he exhibits when his dream of the Avengers starts to circle the drainpipe or when major revelations cause him to snap. All is not dour and depressing, however, as evidenced by the Peter Parker (Tom Holland) recruitment scene, which virtually demands his return to form. 
  • Another source of chronic bellyachin' is the supposed flip-floppery exhibited by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) which, curiously enough, is a trait that she's well known for in the comics. Frankly, after she was publicly raked over the coals in front of Congress at the conclusion of Winter Soldier it makes perfect sense that she would exercise some prudence and stay on the straight n' narrow path, at least until the facts shake out. In fact, a case can be made that she's the smartest, most level-headed character in the entire film. I love that her early warnings to Cap are basically designed to see just committed he is and her turnaround only happens after she's gathered enough insight to make an informed decision. Through it all, Johansson is formidable in battle and a persuasive proponent for calm, rational thought.
  • After seeing the original Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011, I would never have guessed that Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes would emerge as one of my favorite characters. But thanks to visionary producer Kevin Feige and writers Markus and McFeely, they've collectively forged one of the most tragic fictional characters in cinema history. Stan is more than up to the challenge; when he's on point as the Winter Soldier he's a terrifying, nigh-unstoppable killing machine but when he has a moment of clarity as Bucky he's sweet, sad and contrite, justifying Steve's unconditional faith in him at every turn.
  • Antony Mackie's Falcon gets a surprisingly-welcome amount of screen time here. Since Cap's intuition RE: S.H.I.E.L.D. proved to be spot-on, Sam doesn't require a lot of arm-twisting to become Steve's most trusted and unwavering ally. But things get very interesting when Bucky is added to the mix because the two of them are like oil and water, leading to a hilarious exchange in, of all places, a Volkswagen Beetle. Mackie does a fantastic job with the presumably-acrobatic, wire-related action scenes as well delivering his lines with a wry sense of perspective. Plus I was pretty jazzed to finally see his sidekick "Redwing" added to the mix.  
  • Paul Bettany's Vision and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlett Witch have also seen their roles expanded, to the point where hints of their budding comic book romance are starting to emerge. Thanks to the Infinity Gem embedded in the Vision's noggin', Bettany has inherited a character with some interesting and subtle dichotomies which he's really running with. At one turn I'm chuckling at his "trying too hard" Abercrombie & Fitch look and the next minute I'm shocked to see him lose focus during a pivotal moment in battle. In many ways, Wanda is the perfect match for him. She's still coming to grips with her unearthly powers so between her Sokovian trial by fire and the incident that kicks off the registration furor, Olsen has to temper Wanda's raw might with a vein of fragility and hesitance. And even though she reflexively falls into Stark's guilt trap, she soon starts to rail against the threat of internment, regardless of how benign it is. Together they serve up a few tender moments as well as a few wince-inducing confrontations.   
  • This entry also brings us the wonderful Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther. As a fan of low-powered superheroes with bad-ass costumes, I've always liked Black Panther and I was positively stunned that (A) he's integral to the plot and (B) he's relevant to the film's conclusion. His is an economic origin story of sorts and since the character is virtually unknown to the general public, that's probably for the best. Boseman himself is a great pick for Black Panther since he's regal, erudite and cool as fuck. Bonus points: the writers wisely give him the sort of enlightened arc that you really wish the two main principals should have embraced.
  • As Peter Parker / Spider-Man, Tom Holland is another welcome addition. Given Sony's only-recent change of heart RE: lending him back to Marvel Studios, he's not nearly as well integrated into the plot as Black Panther is. He's basically an "out of left field" wringer that Tony Stark's been conveniently keeping tabs on for the past little while. None of this should negatively reflect on Holland, however, who proves to be the most accurate on-screen incarnation of the character I've seen thus far. And even though he doesn't physically resemble who I'd personally cast as Peter Parker, he also doesn't have the "born loser" qualities of Tobey Maguire nor the emo-hip persona of Andrew Garfield. Despite being dirt poor, he's smart, earnest, upbeat and enthusiastic, clearly jazzed to join Team Iron Man just because he hero-worships the famous industrialist. Fortunately this same level of awesome is sustained well into the web-slinging scenes. I really have no idea how much of Holland is physically present during these moments but his line readings strike the perfect balance between fanboy-ism, nervous babbling and smack-talk. To make his introduction even better, the John Romita-influenced Spidey suit is something I've always wanted to see on the big screen.
  • Meanwhile, Ant-Man is Cap's insect ying to Tony's arachnid yang. Paul Rudd is absolutely delightful in the movie. At first he's star-struck after meeting the Living Legend but as soon as he's hurled into action he immediate starts livin' life large. Literally. Nope, no Man of Steel-style hand-wringery or overt mopery on display here; Rudd literally revels in his ability to surprise himself and his opponents in battle. Between infiltrating Iron Man's defenses and recklessly mashing the reverse button on his shrinky-suit just for shits n' giggles, Rudd is single-handedly responsible for some of the film's most memorable moments of giddy joy. It also doesn't hurt that he delivers some of the movie's best lines with impeccable comic timing, to the point where I'm hankering for another Ant-Man movie.      
  • Daniel Brühl is also solid as Helmut Zemo. Although I wish they'd given his character any other name, I still dig his humble origins and simple, thematically-appropriate motivations. Personally I don't know how feasible his scheme would be in the "real" world but Brühl is one-hundred percent committed to it and displays the sort of cold, remorseless intensity that only a completely ruined man would exhibit.
  • Yes, the cast is a tad inflated but every single player adds an additional layer to the film. Like the Falcon to Cap, Don Cheadle's James "Rhodey" Rhodes / War Machine is Tony's stalwart number two, floating some very compelling and persuasive reasons to sign the Sokovia Accord. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye is his usual pragmatic, self-depreciating self, and I'm never gonna stop rooting for a solo flick for him. It's also great to see Cap finally get some long over-due play courtesy of the tough and highly capable Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who clearly shares his pragmatic world view. She expertly presides over several key sequences that not only solidifies Cap's resolve it also locked mine down as well. Also, Frank Grillo and William Hurt make continuity-a-riffic appearances as Brock Rumlow and Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross respectively. Given his messy fate in Winter Soldier, it's great to see Grillo back as a rage and hatred-fueled super-villain while William Hurt reminds us that The Incredible Hulk was a thing that happened way back in two-thousand-aught-eight in the most sure-footed and infuriating way possible.             

THE BAD
  •  Not much to speak of, really.
THE M'EH
  • IMHO, Winter Soldier is still superior to Civil War mainly because it's sleeker, more mysterious, the sub-text is ballsier and it's more tonally even. But I wouldn't be surprised if Civil War ultimately turns out to be the "funner" film, the one that stands up to repeat viewings better. I suppose that only time, and a few more re-watches, will tell.
  • Even though I'm kinda bummed by how Baron Zemo got "Mandarin-ed", I have to appreciate the script's gutsy bait n' switch move with him. Nice move, Markus and McFeely.       
  • As I mentioned before, I loved how the Russo Brothers never once cheated the action in The Winter Soldier. They created dynamic set-ups, shot a ton of stuff practically and pulled the camera way back so we could see what was going on at all times. Now, I'm gonna hold off turning this into a negative until I see the movie again in a non-IMAX 3-D format 'cuz the opening action scene in Lagos looked like it was filmed in FRENETIC ZOOM-IN-O-VISION. Maybe it was a stylistic choice for that particular set piece or maybe it was just my shitty perspective in the theater but, man, it was super-easy to loose track of the action during that scene.   
THE BOTTOM LINE

Civil War might have more excess fat on its bones than The Winter Soldier but it also shares that movie's penchant for sharp writing, witty dialogue, solid acting and social commentary. Most importantly, the film introduces something totally original: the first real on-screen tilt between two A-list groups of super-heroes.

A lesser production probably would have gone ahead and started shooting with this as its centerpiece but instead the producers of Civil War cared enough to keep a laser-like focus on theme, heart and emotion in order to justify their visual delights.


Tilt: up.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Movie Review: "Ex Machina" by David Pretty


Translated from Latin as "the machines of god", deus ex machina refers to five year old story-tellers (or lazy screenwriters) who come up with inexplicable and hitherto-unknown forces or events to miraculously redeem seemingly-hopeless situations. 

On the other hand, Ex Machina, literally translated as "from the machine", is certainly one of the best movies I've seen in recent memory.


Caleb Smith (The Force Awakens' Domhnall Gleeson) is a coder for Blue Book, the world's largest search engine. He wins a contest to visit the company's CEO, an obscenely-wealthy, reclusive, eccentric genius named Nathan Bateman, played by The Force Awakens' Oscar Isaac. Bateman soon reveals that he's been working on the first true example of artificial intelligence in the form of Ava (The F̶̷o̶̷r̶̷c̶̷e̶̷ ̶̷A̶̷w̶̷a̶̷k̶̷e̶̷n̶̷s̶̷'̶̷  Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander), a humanoid female robot. 

Nathan wants Caleb to apply the Turing test to Ava to see if she's passable as human. This leads to one of the movie's more portentous exchanges:

Caleb: It's just in the Turing test, the machine should be hidden from the examiner.
Nathan: No, no. We're way past that. If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she's a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.
Caleb: Yeah, I think you're probably right.   

 
Nathan's unconventional thought process isn't just limited to lax testing procedures. He's obsessively health-conscious but also a borderline alcoholic. He treats his gorgeous Japanese servant Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) like dirt. And he develops a nasty mean streak when Ava and Caleb start to bond during their conversations. This all leads to some explosive revelations and a denouement that justifies the film's abbreviated title.

Just when I'd feared that original, cerebral, artful sci-fi had all but vanished, Ex Machina comes along to prove me wrong. Credit writer Alex Garland, who also penned one of my all-time favorite novels, The Beach. No, I'm not talking about the Danny Boyle / Leonardo DiCaprio flick, I'm talking about the original book. The movie's a piece of poo.

Sorry, I digress. Garland's script is everything I'd ever want in a sci-fi film. It dumps Caleb smack dab into the middle of Nathan's spider-web right away and almost immediately things start to percolate. There are just enough early tells to convince the audience that things aren't quite as they seem. The dialogue as a whole is organic and interesting to listen to, with the scenes between Caleb and Nathan growing increasingly tense and combative while the interviews between Caleb and Ava slowly lead both of them into deeper waters. 


Not only is Garland's script tremendous in a nuts-and-bolts sense, it also serves up plenty of unexpected revelations. Unlike so many other films of its ilk, I was genuinely pleased by the final ten minutes of the film. Even better, the script is rife with interesting sub-text. As someone who's acutely interested in Ray Kurzweil's theory of technology singularity, words can't describe how excited I am to see a cinematic work of fiction wrestle with deep thoughts like exponential tech growth, a lack of privacy in the internet age and the hubris inherent in creating an AI superior to humans.   
  
The concept of artificial life run amok is certainly nothing new, but when you consider how old 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Westworld (1973), The Terminator (1984) and Blade Runner (1982) are, we really needed a more modern take on the subject. Since we're essentially living in the future depicted in those films right now, we really needed a more contemporary snapshot of where we stand. And Ex Machina does this with chilling aptitude.  

Serving double duty as the film's director, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy have produced a coolly-distant-looking movie that, dare I say it, looks downright Kubrickian from time to time. From the epic expanses of Bateman's wilderness retreat, to the antiseptic halls of his research facility, to the reflective inner sanctum of Ava's glass cell, the film sports a pronounced visual tone of detachment and mechanical alienation. By keeping his camera in motion and indulging in off-center set-ups and top-down angles, Garland cultivates a nigh-intolerable level of unconscious discordance and paranoia. Adding to this is the dreamy, ethereal synth score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow which evokes shades of Giorgio Moroder, Brad Fiedel, John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis. 


The film's unsettling tone is heightened considerably by some simple, yet highly effective, special effects that bring the aliens in Attack the Block to mind. By all accounts, everything was shot practically in-camera with Alicia Vikander's hands, face and feet rotoscoped onto a digital robot body. No green screen. No dot-covered faces. No motion capture. The effect is breathtakingly flawless and works perfectly within the context of the film's sober climate of realism.

The cast is all universally awesome. While watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens I could tell that both Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac had considerable acting chops, so it's wonderful to watch them sink their teeth into something so rich and substantial. Gleeson is eminently relate-able. He's kinda awkward, passionate about his work and clearly has a good heart. We're pulled right along with him as he starts to develop feelings for Ava and his mistrust of Nathan continues to build. Eventually Nathan's incessant mind-fuckery starts to wear on him, leading to a crises of self-doubt that's particularly harrowing to watch.  

Isaac is even better. At first introduction, Nathan Bateman comes across as your average eccentric, hipster-dot-com, Elon Musk-flavored, mock-informal tech genius. But, right from the beginning, he's also a bundle of walking contradictions, insisting on the best food and exercising obsessively while getting blind drunk almost every night. Isaac makes sure that there's something slightly askew with the whole "I'm your boss but also your buddy" tone. He's so intense, so focused and so supremely confident that he adopts Caleb's off-handed "god" reference as fact. Even after the beans are finally spilled RE: Bateman's icky motivations and past dealings, Isaac insures that our thoughts about him remain surprisingly complicated. 


And then there's Alicia Vikander, who turns in a brave, bold and heart-rending performance as Ava. She does a great job embodying this sweet, innocent, likeable captive and you really can't slight Caleb for developing feelings for her, regardless of her odd appearance and slightly-off-kilter demeanor. Vikander easily clears her biggest hurdle: retaining all of these likeable qualities while betraying certain limitations that are maddeningly obvious to her creator. Her motivations for impressing Caleb, her inability to comprehend her lot in life and her final acts of desperation all make perfect sense in the end. All of this leads to an unconventional and highly-welcome resolution. 

Now, I'm sure some people will watch Ex Machina and be bored by it. I am not one of those people. I'm one of those people who thought that the Will Smith / Alex Proyas bastardization of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot was dull as shit. Anyone can decree a CGI-soaked action sequence but very few people can craft a compelling, thought-provoking script which creates a sustained sense of dread whilst inspiring the actors to deliver three-dimensional characters that we care about.

If this movie had been handled by lesser film-makers, it probably would have ended with the inexplicable, convenient, last minute arrival of some previously-unseen "rescue 'bots" to save the day. Instead we ended up with a movie where the title Ex Machina makes a lot more sense.    


       Tilt: up.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Movie Review: "Man of Steel" by David Pretty


IN A NUTSHELL

The dude from Gladiator sends his son Kal-El to Earth just before their home planet of Krypton goes "ker-blooey." The interstellar orphan is renamed Clark by his adoptive family the Kents who try to raise him as a normal kid. Unfortunately he's "cursed" with super powers so he's all broody and angsty, especially after getting some downright terrible advice from his dad, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Eventually evil survivors from Kal-El's home planet escape from their giant dildo prisons and seek out the last Son of Krypton to settle some unfinished business. Morpheus guest stars.

IN THE WHEELHOUSE

If you've always wanted a Micheal Bay understudy to direct a Superman movie, you're in luck. Alternately if you're allergic to things like pacing, character development, logic, tone and storytelling, this is the movie for you!


THE GOOD
  • At the very least, Man of Steel tried to do something different, which is more than I can say for Superman Returns, which was little more than a slavish fan film dedicated to the Richard Donner movie. I really like the whole "Codex" angle, with Kal-El bearing the genetic profile of the entire Kryptonian race since it raises the stakes quite nicely.   
  • Despite the fact that Russell Crowe felt slightly out of place his performance as Jor-El was surprisingly restrained and commanding. 
  • Michael Shannon was awesome as General Zod. Despite the fact that his role was hideously underwritten, he was convincingly motivated to fulfill his scheme, regardless of how sketchy it seemed to be.
  • Both Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are solid as young Clark's parents. This despite the fact that Jonathan Kent gives some pretty suspect advice and Martha doesn't get a whole lot to do.
  • I really liked the early manifestation of Clark's abilities. If you were a little kid at school and you suddenly noticed that your friends looked like see-through "Visible Man" models in science class you'd freak the fux out as well.  
  • I think that Henry Cavill is a fantastic pick as Clark Kent / Superman. Ever since I saw him in The Tudors I always thought that he'd make a great Superman. I just feel bad that the guy got saddled with such a shitty script, since he really doesn't get many opportunities to act like Superman. Or Clark Kent for that matter. Even though the character had no significant arc or development to speak of, his charisma still shines through.  
  • I like a lot of the early goings of the film, especially the scenes with Clark bouncing around like a nomad trying to find himself and performing random acts of kindness. I also like the way they dealt with the whole "Fortress of Solitude" conundrum. 
  • The script treats the character of Lois Lane with the same short shift as anything else but at least she gets one snoopy scene!
  • The special effects, sound engineering and art design have all produced stunning results. The IHOP brawl and the final confrontation in Metropolis are a götterdämmerung orgy of PTSD-inspiring destruction and super-mayhem. 
THE BAD
  • This movie is clearly designed for people with attention spans shorter than The Flash. For example, even though Jor-El is supposed to be a scientist, the film-makers clearly didn't want to give the audience the impression that he's some sort of wimpy, boring egg-head. So he's shown beating up Zod's minions, swimming like Micheal Phelps and flying around on a dragon. A DRAGON, fer Crissakes. 
  • After young Clark understandably uses his super-powers to rescue his classmates, suspicions are immediately cast upon the Kent family, which leads to the following baffling exchange between Clark and his adopted dad: Clark: I just wanted to help. Jonathan: I know you did, but we talked about this. Right? Right? We talked about this! You have...Clark, you have to keep this side of yourself a secret. Clark: What was I supposed to do? Just let them die? Jonathan: Maybe... Now, IMHO, it really doesn't matter what good ol' Pa Kent says after telling his son "Maybe", since it pretty much sums up the the cock-eyed ethos of this terrible film. Seriously, are we all that self-absorbed and cuntish as a society now that we'd actually humor the notion of a father telling his child: "Son, clearly you were given some amazing gifts by a higher power. So, rather than risk revealing this and possibly impacting you, me and your mom in some completely speculative way, I want you to never, ever help people. I mean it: our privacy and the chance of being inconvenienced totally outweighs saving the lives of a bunch of innocent kids." Seriously? Y'know what? FUCK YOU, movie. Clearly writers David S. Goyer and Christopher "PAINT IT BLACK" Nolan were just throwing random ideas at the wall to see if any of them stick, not realizing that as soon as you float a concept this stupid, then you're no longer making a Superman movie. This is really driven home later on in a supremely idiotic and laughably melodramatic scene in which Jonathan goes to some pretty extreme lengths to "prove" his "point". In Richard Donner's Superman, Clark learns a valuable lesson about human frailty and the limit of his powers when something similar happens. In Man of Steel, Jonathan ultimately teaches Clark to be a selfish twat.
  • Knowing that they can fall back on unlimited gobs of digital spectacle, writer David S. Goyer and director Zack Snyder don't seem too keen with laying down a proper foundation for the Superman mythos. That's why, in a movie that's unnecessarily two-and-a-half hours long, you see Supes bombing around in full costume, clumsily taking out mountaintops at around the fifty minute mark. In order to appease the most fleeting of attention spans, the story is told non-linear style so that we don't have to sit through too much pesky character development and plot points all in one go.
  • When Snyder and company finally let themselves off of their lead, were "treated" to the equivalent of Alex's reprogramming at the end of A Clockwork Orange. If your idea of entertainment is seeing two CGI character models beating the shit out of each another and wrecking both a small town and an entire freakin' city, then get ready to be dazzled, folks. As for me I had to stop every few minutes because I was getting alternately bored and / or numbed by the boundless and unrestrained anarchy. Eventually it boils down to "guy dressed like Superman who I like only 'cuz he's not a complete asshole" versus "guy who wants to terraform earth and kill everyone because reasons". I really didn't feel as if I had a dog, or a "Krypto" as it were, in this fight at all.  
  • Look, the Superman mythos has always been a pretty transparent Jesus parable, so did we really need that blatant shot in the church or the image of Superman Christ-pose floating backwards into space? Hey, Zack, tell me...how is it possible to be obvious and pretentious all at the same time?
  • Of all the comic book characters out there, you'd think that, at the very least, you'd make Man of Steel vaguely watchable for children. Now, don't get me wrong, I railed against the assumption that comic book properties are exclusively kids stuff in my Deadpool review, but unlike that character, Superman was originally created to entertain younglings. Ergo, do we really need such an angsty, depressing, murderous, destructive, "realistic", gritty approach? Nowadays I just look at "dark" as a crutch for lazy writers. After all, Grant Morrison managed to retain the goofier aspects of the character but still came up with All Star Superman, which has since become a bonafide comic book classic.
  • Speaking of "dark", it's not enough that the film boasts the sort of content that would make a neckbearded fanboy sport a super-boner, the movie literally looks like it was shot in a cave. All the color has been completely drained out of it. It's murky, grainy-looking and unrelentingly bleak. Everything is so gray and dead that I thought I was watching a Bizarro Superman movie, if not for the fact that the dialogue is marginally better. 
  • One thing that really doesn't help in watching the film is the constant over-use of shaky-cam. I can't believe that this movie was directed by the same guy that gave us the relatively restrained Dawn of the Dead remake and Watchmen. Jesus, those movies look like Pan's Labyrinth and Lawrence of Arabia now in comparison.    
  • The product placement is soooooo obnoxious here. After the movie I blacked out and when I came to I found myself gassing up at a 7-11 while gnawing on an IHOP waffle, all the while wearing a sassy new dickie that I'd just picked up at Sears.
  • Laurence Fishburne says his inspiration for Perry White was 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradly. Oddly enough, I didn't really pick up on that given his four lines of dialogue and "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" screen time. 
  • There is so much lazy screen-writing and co-incidental shit that happens going on here it's downright laughable. Amy Adams, bless her heart, tries her best but literally her only function in this movie is to serve as a cog to keep the film's clunky narrative piston engine chugging ahead. Count how many times she just conveniently teleports in from out of no-where to deliver exposition and you'll begin to wonder if this isn't some sort of Superman / Raven team up movie. 
THE M'EH
  • As a side note, my Superman would never, ever consciously choose to battle a super villain in a heavily-populated place where humans could get squished en masse, but I think the script does a fair job justifying this whilst raising the threat level in the process. Many critics have crapped on Supes for not leading Zod out of the city but in his defense he does try to move the fight out into freakin' space. Remember, after Zod snaps he's not looking to kill Kal-El anymore, he's trying to murder as many humans as possible. That's why he keeps bringing the fight back to the "ant farm". Given this context I even forgive Clark for his "final solution" to his Zod problem ("Zodlem"?). Yes, I wish the writers had come up with a clever way for Superman to outwit Zod rather than the uncharacteristic, cro-magnon-style solve we get here. 
  • I really like Amy Adams a lot but I do think she's slightly miscast here. As opposed to Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns, who was miscast and gave a flat performance. When I picture Lois Lane I don't picture "girl next door", I picture seasoned, street-smart, edgy and perhaps slightly drunk. Amy's got winsome, cute and effervescent locked down cold (Exhibit "A" here) but I'd still prefer a caffeine-wired, nosy, chain-smokin' Margot Kidder type.   
  • The suit looks pretty good but I really wish they'd kept the trunks. Contrary to Zack Snyder's myopic claim that the shorts are just a leftover from Victorian-era strongman days and that he couldn't get a design to work within the "reality" of his "vision", the briefs are iconic and really break-up the goofy-looking "onsie" look that makes the whole ensemble look like a pair of haute couture long johns.   

THE BOTTOM LINE

I'm convinced that if this movie had been released under the tile of Good Alien, Bad Alien it would have been a perfectly serviceable but otherwise disposable summer time popcorn flick. But since it's called Man of Steel and it's supposed to be about Superman, people will continue to debate its merits ad nauseum.

How's this for merits: half way through the film I was actually still firmly onboard. Like I said, at least they were doing something different. But then, somewhere during the midway point it turned into a special-effects soaked alien invasion sci-fi flick that makes Independence Day look like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's at this point when the film vomits as much noise, bombast and spectacle up on the screen in order to to distract you from the fact that what you're watching has precious little to do with Superman.

Look, here's the deal: a character like Batman can easily run the gamut between campy and serious. But, like it or not, Superman has only one default setting; he's a power fantasy figure for little kids. He wears blue long-johns, he flies, he has a cape and he shoots lasers out of his eyes. And when you take something that inherently childish and you give him a Gothic makeover it comes off as pretentious, heavy-handed and inadvertently funny. 

And, frankly, I don't even know why you'd want to make him so unremittingly edgy. If the ultimate goal is to have him share space with Batman, wouldn't you want these characters to contrast with one another? A ying and yang? Hell, it could be the greatest buddy cop movie since Lethal Weapon.

Oh, man, this doesn't bode well for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.



Tilt: down.
    

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Movie Review-lette: "Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King" by David Pretty

Every once and awhile I'll indulge in an insane game called "Movie Review-lette", inviting social media friends to name a movie they want me to review. Naturally a "be-as-cruel-or-as-kind-as-you-wanna-be" waiver is always attached to this offer. As soon as I have ten suggestions I'll randomly pick one of 'em out of a hat to watch and review.

The last time I did this I ended up watching Big Top Pee-wee (thanks, BTW, to Josh Mullins for that...bastard). This little experiment scarred me so badly that I haven't done it again...until recently.

This time fate was a lot kinder, with Tyler Weir suggesting Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King, an anime adaptation of the classic, dark, epic fantasy manga written by Kentaro Miura back in 1988.

Hey, it can't be any worse than a movie Paul Reubens crapped out as an afterthought, right? Riiiight?!?


okay, before I get started, I have a confession to make. I really don't like a lot of anime. And unlike most people I can actually articulate why:
  1. The oblique, heavy-handed, patently-obvious, "lost-in-translation" dialogue often comes across as completely tin-eared to me. 
  2. Characters aren't so much three-dimensional beings as they are ridiculously broad archetypes. Hey, look, it's "brash-hot-headed-but-noble guy!" and here's "strong, silent, highly-competent" guy and *look!* it's my all time-favorite: "goofy, clumsy, sweet-but-awkward" guy! *Yawn*
  3. The over-reliance on cheap animation tricks really pisses me off. For example: showing a character's face frozen in place while the backgrounds streak by in order to convey a charging attack of a giant load of horse shite. 
  4. Many of the plots are so fucking convoluted that I just tune out. Now I know that some of this can be attributed to different story-telling traditions as well as cultural and / or language barriers, but more often than not its abundantly clear that the writer has no falking clue what they're doing
  5. But the thing I despise the most by far are all those stupid, superfluous vocal exclamations that are shamelessly over-used. Sorry, but "Uh!", "Ah!" and "Huh?" ARE NOT LINES OF FUCKING DIALOGUE.
Despite these annoying tropes I've enjoyed some anime in the past, namely the goofy slapstick of Ranma 1/2, the engrossing depth of The Vision of Escaflowne and Record of Lodoss War, the lean and mean Blood as well as the sophistication and beauty of Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Princess Mononoke. So, there, I'm not a hater after all. The big question then becomes, does Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King fall into the first category or the second?

Fortunately, the flick gets a good start right out of the gate. We begin with an evocative opening shot with clouds, an Abrams-style lens flare, wheeling crows and what appears to be the odd meteor streaking across the sky. The camera then pans down into the tumult of a siege army charging towards the walls of a castle. As it turns out, the meteors are actually catapult pitch hurtling towards the battlements.


When the invading army finally breaches the castle walls they're temporarily thwarted by an intimidating, axe-wielding mountainoid in full plate armor named Bazuso. Just when it seems as if the invader's morale has been broken, an enigmatic mercenary named Guts (because anime) strides out of the crowd. After securing a seven silver piece bounty for killing the castle's hulking guardian, Guts (Marc Diraison) hurls himself into combat and defeats the giant with a combination of blunt force, wits and rage.

This spectacular feat draws the attention of Griffith (Kevin T. Collins), leader of the Band of Hawks, a powerful mercenary guild. In a move akin to a press-gang, they ambush Guts and subdue him with a Herculean group effort. When he wakes up in the Hawk's camp, the brash merc tries to exact revenge on Griffith but the effete, ultra-zen fighter puts him in the dirt again. Embracing a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality, Guts decides the join the Hawks and go on campaign with them.

Fast-forward to three years later and the dominant Kingdom of Midland has retained the Hawks to destroy the upstart rival nation of Chuder. Thanks to a ballsy but reckless charge spearheaded by Guts, the Hawks rout the Black Sheep Iron Spears Heavy Knights (because anime) and the day is won. Unfortunately the power brokers in the realm, including the king's petty brother Yurius (Jesse Corti), aren't too keen on the meteoric rise of the Hawks, especially when Griffith draws the eye of the fetching Princess Charlotte (Rachael Lillis).


Things kick into high gear when Guts brashly confronts a demon named Nosferatu Zodd the Immortal (because anime). After the creature (voiced by J. David Brimmer) spies the red egg pendant worn by Griffith, he warns Guts that his mentor will be the death of him. This prophecy starts to ring true after Griffith gives Guts a revenge-fueled order to assassinate a political rival, which ends up going horribly sideways. 

Fortunately there's a lot to like here. Clocking in at a lean-and-mean seventy-seven minutes long, the film's run time could arguably be described as abbreviated but at least it doesn't overstay its welcome. The premise and early stages of the movie comes across as the inaugural session of a junior high school era D&D campaign but mid-way through things finally start to percolate. Even better, there's a genuine "Oh, fuck!" moment that happens right at the end of the movie which evoked shades of the first episode of The Shield for me; a ploy which kept me slavishly devoted to that particular show right up to the very end.

Right from the opening shot you know that the movie will look spectacular at the very least. The character designs, art direction and backgrounds are all lush and beautifully rendered. Except for the character's faces there are very few obvious tells that you're watching an anime here. In fact, a part of me wanted it to look more like a Kurosawa-style, feudal Japanese fantasy setting then yet another generic medieval European milieu.


The character animation is particularly convincing, leading me to believe that motion capture or some modern version of rotoscoping was used. Clearly a large chunk of the animation is computer-assisted and although I still prefer the more organic and immersive hand-drawn animation of an Akira, the results here are so gosh durned purdy that I feel churlish for criticizing it. The confrontation with Nosferatu Zodd is particularly impressive highlight.

As for the characters themselves, they're likable enough. Guts kinda reminds me of the main character in my first novel; he's stubborn, rage-filled, suicidally brave and hard-headed but he also has a sense of duty and is driven to do the right thing. After he's knocked unconscious by the Hawks he experiences a pretty intense fever dream that hints at his origins. I can only hope that this will be expanded upon in the next two parts.

Looking like a cross between Rarity from My Little Pony and Taylor Swift, Griffith comes across as quietly sinister in spite of his delicate appearance. When he nonchalantly tells Guts about how he came across the crimson behelit pendant and the cryptic prophecy of power that goes along with it, warning klaxons immediately started going off in my head. Especially when you consider that the pendant itself is decorated with random human features, including eyeballs that like to play peek-a-boo at unexpected moments.


But by far my favorite character is Casca (Carolyn Keranen), the female fighter who serves as Griffith's second-in-command. Things get off to a shaky start when Griffith orders her to sleep naked next to a comatose Guts in order to "keep him warm with her body heat". Given anime's cheesy penchant for shoe-horning scenes of superfluous female nudity into the proceedings, it's hard not to be cynical about such things. At least it's treated casually, it's non-exploitative and there are zero tentacles present.

I'd be slightly more forgiving if Guts was "full monty" in this scene as well, but as we all know "female nudity GOOD, male nudity BAD". I'd hate to think that animators throw these things in just for the purpose of titillating a bunch of sexually arrested neck-beards. I mean there can't be weirdos out there who have a fetish for fleeting glimpses of anime nudity, are there? What am I saying, of course there are.

Notwithstanding this, Casca is still a fun character. At first she's dead-set against recruiting Guts because she just thinks of him as a rabid dog. Even after Griffith insists on admitting him into the ranks of the Hawks, she constantly rides him for going off half-cocked. I loved the scene where she sucker-punches him for callously chopping down her horse in order to secure a cheap win. I wanted the movie to be longer if only to explore why she's so slavishly devoted to Griffith. Hopefully this will be covered somewhat in Part II.


As for Yurius, he isn't a particularly memorable villain. All he does is scowl and bitch a lot. As far as I can determine, he hates Griffith solely because he gets too much attention from the King for his military victories and too much attention from the princess 'cuz he's so gosh durned purdy. Then again, this is just the first act in a trilogy and it soon becomes abundantly clear that he's nothing more than a minor foil to help catalyze a critical story beat in this particular arc.

Then there's *sigh* Princess Charlotte. Charlotte makes Lynn Minmei from Robotech look like Sarah Connor. She's a mousy, timid, skittish thing who's dialogue primarily consists of those annoying little one-syllable vocal exclamation that I find so fucking annoying. If she isn't tripping over her own feet or getting carried away on a runaway horse she screaming like Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element. Above and beyond the fact that she's cute, I have no clue what Griffith sees in her. And even though I find it vaguely refreshing to see a female character written as something slightly less tough than Ellen Ripley, Charlotte is soft to the point of annoying.

So, yeah, even though Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King is under-plotted, the characters are broadly written and the film occasionally succumbs to the annoying anime tropes that give me fits, I'll definitely be watching Part II ASAP. Between the film's superficial beauty, fleeting pace and the plot twist at the end, I'll just go cue it up on Netflix right no....

Hey, wait...is Part II not on Netflix yet?!?

TYLEEEERRRRRRRR!!!



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