Labels

Monday, June 26, 2017

Film Review - WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

Since its inception in 1968 Fox’s Planet of the Apes franchise, based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, has represented the best in mainstream science fiction cinema, projecting engrossing, smart allegories against a broadly fun and thrilling backdrop. Eerily tapping into the zeitgeist of the day almost every time out, these pictures have become an unlikely success story; a reliable earner that consistently deprives viewers of happy endings or easy answers. This proud tradition evolved beautifully over the past few years with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which married the series’ bleak and daring integrity with state-of-the-art WETA wizardry to awesome results. And, in the latter film’s crushing ending, the ground was laid for an unforgettable conclusion to the arc of Andy Serkis’ chimpanzee revolutionary Caesar.

It’s beyond satisfying to report trilogy capper War for the Planet of the Apes is a towering achievement; a haunting and challenging final chapter that’s as impressive as its predecessors. Easily the most despairing entry yet, it’s something of a miracle it even exists in an age of obsessive market-testing. But, under the confident watch of remarkable director Matt Reeves (who also shares scripting duties with Mark Bomback), the descent into misery is earned and thematically appropriate, propelled by the wounded souls of the characters, not mean-spirted nihilistic manipulation. A self-professed student of Hitchcock, he implicitly understands the importance of subjectivity and offers each crucial participant an opportunity to express their own invaluable point-of-view.

What Reeves has fashioned with his second Apes picture is an honest examination of war. He has little interest in cranking out splashy, sensationalized action spectacle devoid of consequences. No, instead he’s fascinated in exploring the dehumanizing effects and psychological cost of battle. Much like in 2014’s Dawn, the grandly conceived mayhem is ugly and unpleasant, committed by desperate men weakened by fear. This approach to the violence is the correct one. It intensifies our sympathetic bond with tormented protagonist Caesar, whose yearnings for peace and community mirror our own.

War kicks off in bravura style, with a tension-soaked, largely dialogue-free sequence wherein a small militia force attacks an ape encampment in the deep forest. This conflict, which results in untold casualties, ultimately draws Caeser back out of the shadows. Despite proposing an honorable ceasefire, his dreams are unspeakably shattered when the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson, appropriately Kurtz-ian) leads a stealth assault unit right into the heart of his hidden home fortress. Racked with fury, and still harboring guilt from killing former friend Koba (Toby Kebbell), our hero, along with loyal lieutenants Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), embark on a quest for vengeance against their deranged enemy. However, the mission proves far more fraught with complication than anticipated, as staggering revelations regarding the world, and the apes’ place in it, come to nightmarish light.

All too often creative fatigue sets in by the third franchise instalment. Not the case here! Continuing to expand the Apes universe in bold directions, Reeves early on employs a basic road trip structure as a means of introducing fascinating new characters and concepts. Most compelling, and likely crowd-pleasing, among War’s additions is Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a meagre, Gollum-like figure who has long survived as a lowly scavenger. Supplying the film’s only real comedy relief, there’s nonetheless a tangible sense of melancholy to his goofiness; the wacky eccentricities born primarily from past pain and isolation. He offers a fresh perspective on the long-raging struggle, as does a young mute girl (Amiah Miller) fatefully brought into Caesar’s circle. She adds unexpected poignancy and grace to some of the movie’s most seemingly hopeless moments.

These two forces of warmth and decency are balanced out by the problematic Rex (Ty Olsson), the fearsome gorilla who leads the Colonel’s Donkey division - a platoon of human-collaborating apes who’ve accepted slavery in exchange for self-preservation. Reeves’ and Bomback’s screenplay smartly uses this tragic villain (a welcome follow-up to Dawn’s Koba), and his self-loathing simian allies, as a means of blurring the battle-lines and deepening the film’s remarkable moral complexities. By fleshing out his internal struggles, and those of the fallible members of Caeser’s own army, the picture paints a sadly relevant portrait of the corrupting power of terror.

In Caesar, these modern Apes tales have fashioned one of the most captivating blockbuster protagonists in recent memory. While savior figures often come across as impenetrable and difficult to relate to (especially when presented, as here, with heavy biblical overtones), his tormented, doubt-filled journey has proven consistently compelling. In War we see him in his rawest state yet, nearly broken by the burden of leadership and unsure of both himself and the future of his species. There’s frankly no better word to describe Serkis’ performance than magnificent. Despite acting through layers of incredible technology he once again imbues his masterpiece creation with stunning emotional sophistication and touching compassion. His noble chimp visionary - far and away the franchise’s greatest protagonist (sorry Chuck!) - faces insurmountable hardships and stumbles, and we’re right there with him for every grueling, uneasy step.

What a wonderful unexpected gift this new series has proven to be. To see a studio plunge ungodly resources into rebooting such a strange, downbeat property, and then show a steadfast commitment to artistry, innovation and well-crafted storytelling over easy money, is such a stunning rarity it warrants respectful appreciation. And it is undeniably exhilarating to see their hard work pay off! The commanding War triumphantly solidifies the Caesar saga’s rightful place, alongside the Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight pictures, as the one of the very finest contemporary epic trilogies. “Apes together strong,” indeed.

4.5 out of 5

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Film Review - TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT


Although it may not be immediately obvious, 2017 marks a significant milestone for the world of cinema. No, not the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, silly! This year commemorates one glorious decade of Michael Bay Transformers movies! A historic era, if ever there was one, defined by its maker’s steadfast determination to project crude racial caricatures, slobbering misogyny, blatant product placement and brain-scraping, assaultive chaos in front of the eyes of children of all ages. Let us all make a solemn plea to the higher powers that future generations not hold this franchise’s four billion dollar worldwide earnings against us. For we will have no answers, only silence. And shame.

The fifth entry, Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what one might expect if they’ve waded through the previous four. Whereas the Pirates of the Caribbean series, for example, has degraded over time, these unstoppable things haven’t suffered any real franchise fatigue. They’re still the same stupid, incoherent expressions of gleeful adolescent rage the original was when it wowed audiences in 2007. The mythology has gotten exponentially more labyrinthine (if that’s possible), but you can still watch any single film and be able to tell others you’ve seen them all. Sure, this one tosses Arthurian legends - passed off as legitimate history – into the mix. However it’s just dopey window-dressing to gussy up the typical screeching, ugly visual overload that makes up the majority of the run-time.

The Last Knight probably isn’t the worst Transformers picture, but it is the least tolerable to endure (so far... *Gulp*). The sheer idiocy, political incorrectness and nihilism of these movies used to at least spark outrage or bewilderment. No longer. There is zero emotional response to be mined from this film’s 149-minutes. It is the epitome of anti-art, furiously bombarding you with relentless over-stimulation (the spectacle is consistently frantic, while the actors have three speeds: solemn, sputtering and psychotic) until its time is up and you’re free to listlessly remove yourself from the theatre, bored, blank-faced and pondering what to have for dinner.

A pretty lame result, given modest early hopes this one would take a slightly different tact. The Last Knight is the first project to emerge from Paramount's recently assembled franchise brain-trust, which was created in order to expand the brand in fresh and exciting ways (screenwriting pox Ehren Kruger, whose fever dreams fuelled the last three, is MIA here). Alas, new additions Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (Iron Man) and Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) – with assistance from wildly inconsistent veteran Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin) – have churned out a clunker that feels almost entirely indistinguishable from that which came before. Money well spent, guys!

Rewriting the origin of the gigantic robots’ arrival on Earth for the umpteenth time, The Last Knight opens in the Dark Ages (the inspiration for Bay’s race and gender politics, hey-o!), where Merlin (Stanley Tucci, the brief bright spot) receives a Cybertronian wand that clinches victory for the overwhelmed Britons. Smash cut to a decimated modern day Chicago: the U.S. government, in an effort to rid the globe of the walking extraterrestrial junkyards, has assembled a deadly mechanized strike time that controls the streets with brutal force. With potential savior Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) gone on an extended trip back home to kill his Borg Queen-like creator Quintessa (Gemma Chan), the city has devolved into carnage, leaving Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), 14-year-old Izabella (Isabela Moner), and their massive clanging allies, alone to rise up against the unjust crusade.

Aggravated by their destructive rebellion, America makes a desperate bargain with the evil Megatron (Frank Welker) to help exterminate the Autobot threat. It’s all a ruse, clearly, as the gravel-voiced baddie actually seeks to usher in doomsday for humanity. Eccentric academic Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) is on to him, and recruits Yeager and brilliant historian Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) to recover Merlin’s long lost weapon, which can thwart the apocalyptic Decepticon menace lurking within our planet’s core. As our heroes valiantly strive to outrace their deadly pursuers to the prize, Optimus struggles under the corruptive influence of his seductive deity’s hypnotic spell.

If any of the above plot details sound at all comprehensible, rest assured such is not the case when channeled through the mad, amped-up sensibilities of Michael Bay. The director – who delivered a decent movie last year with 13 Hours - again chooses crazed, explosion-y style over substance, letting his simple chase plot carelessly devolve into a confused jumble of overwrought exposition (John Turturro shows up to literally phone in jibberish) that grows more and more puzzling until you give up trying to connect the dots all together. Multiple characters (including Moner and Jerrod Carmichael as Cade's nervous sidekick) are exhaustively introduced and then forgotten, and rampant unfunny comic riffing and extended sequences of grotesque CG bedlam cause the momentum to lurch and stagger. No joke, about 45 minutes could have been cut without harm (preferably all scenes involving Burton’s obnoxious split-personality robot butler, played by Jim Carter).

You kinda have to admire Bay though. While Terrence Malick works with comparative shoestring budgets, Bay, the manic auteur, has ungodly resources to throw around in service of exploring his own inimitable obsessions and fantasies. Rarely in big budget moviemaking has an artist been laid as bare as he is in these films, boldly inviting us into his own hyperkinetic psyche where crass sensation trumps sense or accepted morality. It’s a genuinely strange place: affection is articulated through hostility, science is dumb, violence solves all, ethnic stereotypes dictate behavior and women are fetishized and resented for it (at one point Cade sneers at Vivian for wearing a “stripper dress” as the camera creepily lingers on her). Maybe this why he keeps coming back to the franchise; they’re insanely lucrative therapy sessions.
Either way, The Last Knight leaves one with a definitive feeling that enough is enough. In an age where Marvel, LucasFilm, Pixar and so many others are producing rousing family-friendly blockbusters filled with wit, fun and technical daring these repetitive cookie-cutter Transformers flicks – which can’t even be bothered bringing the title characters off the flipping sidelines – don’t cut it no matter how many expensive 1s and 0s noisily bounce around the frame. Ten years without a glimmer of maturation is a really damning sign it’s time to grow up already and move on.

1 out of 5

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Film Review - THE MUMMY

Universal’s The Mummy is a dried out, moldy husk of creative bankruptcy that symbolizes the very worst in modern blockbuster moviemaking. Lazily pilfering the graves of the studio’s famous horror icons in a sweat-stained attempt to conjure up a quickie shared mega-franchise in the Marvel template, the film offers zero artistry or ambition. Instead it’s aggravatingly smug in its self-satisfaction, a feature-length Dark Universe series prologue that dimly assumes audiences will hunger for more after being fed two hours of filler. This isn’t so much putting the cart before the horse as it is strapping the bewildered animal to a teetering pile of wood, metal and nails.   

The studio has been eager to relaunch its famous monsters line for a long time. However, it appears the box-office failures of 2004’s Van Helsing (Bad!), 2010’s The Wolfman (Good!) and 2014’s Dracula Untold (Bad!) have left them baffled as to how to proceed. The original classic films, which ran from 1930 to 1956, weren’t exactly high octane fare. Rather, they were strange creature showcases, heavy on ominous German Expressionist atmosphere and dread, that allowed some of the industry’s most stylish off-beat visionaries – such as Tod Browning (Dracula), James Whale (the first two Frankensteins, Invisible Man) and Karl Freund (The Mummy) - to work their eerie magic. The devil with source material fidelity though, moody horror rarely yields boffo franchise dollars anymore! Superheroes on the other hand...

Thus, this iteration of The Mummy isn’t interested in being a spooky blast, or crafting colorful characters, so much as ham-fistedly foreshadowing future Avengers-esque crossovers. Similar to 2016 debacles Independence Day: Resurgence and Warcraft, what we have here is a textbook case of Phantom Sequel Syndrome, wherein payoff is almost entirely dependent on follow-ups which may or may not ever happen. It’s a terrible approach to producing entertainment and buries this otherwise wholly mediocre genre clunker under an unnecessary ton of embarrassing baggage. It inspires wistful nostalgia for Brendan Fraser’s bombastic adventures among the undead.

If one were feeling charitable, credit is at least due to this Mummy for trying something new in attempting a female take on the archetypal antagonist. Named Ahmanet (the invaluable Sofia Boutella), she’s a vengeful Egyptian princess with designs on reawakening Set, the god of death (note: in actuality the god of desert, storms and violence, but whatever), who will help her conquer the land. Exhumed in Iraq by opportunistic treasure hunter/U.S. military man Nick Morton (Tom Cruise, doing what he can to enliven Underworld-grade material), she hitches a ride to London with designs on recovering the lost piece of a ceremonial dagger long buried beneath the city in a Crusader Knight’s grave. While Nick and his archaeologist love interest Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) fight to stay one step ahead of their vengeful soul-sucking enemy, the mysterious Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe, in hammy Man with the Iron Fists check-cashing mode) lurks behind the curtain with a grander game in mind.

It is peculiar how needlessly convoluted and confusing The Mummy is given the fact the general premise is ridiculously simple. Cobbled together by six credited writers, including director/producer Alex Kurtzman and heavy-hitters David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), the picture screams ‘committee-made.’ Showing little faith for the intelligence of its viewers, the screenplay shoehorns in constant creaky exposition – often repeating information learned mere moments ago – and, in both Jekyll and Jack Johnston’s comic sidekick, establishes two different spokesmen to tirelessly spew it. The dopey narrative technique proves futile, though, as the film never nails down its increasingly stupid mythology, or provides coherence to the dreary procession of awkward action sequences and plot beats inelegantly smashed together in the editing room. Perhaps the raging sandstorm of nonsense would be less tedious with engaging heroes and villains to latch onto. Alas, they’re all generic types whose alleged personalities are spoken of but never glimpsed.   

Alex Kurtzman was a disastrous choice to oversee this ramshackle product. A Hollywood mega-producer, and writer of tent-poles both fantastic (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III) and execrable (Transformers 1 & 2, Amazing Spider-Man 2), he arrives with only one directorial effort under his belt in the completely forgotten 2012 dramedy People Like Us. For a franchise steeped in a rich history of fantastic uncanny imagery he’s a barely competent journeyman lacking the required panache to deliver effective scares or satisfying action. There’s nary a single shot in The Mummy that lingers in the imagination (it frequently looks inexplicably cheap), and even the much-ballyhooed zero-G plane crash scene only leaves you pondering how much cooler it might have been with a skilled eye behind the camera. Although it’s tempting to cut Kurtzman the helmer some slack and assume his work was compromised by relentless corporate interests, it’s impossible to neglect the sad truth that Kurtzman the producer was essential in forging this shaky blueprint, and already bungled the same crass business strategy with the second Andrew Garfield Spidey flick.
How many times must Hollywood learn that an audience’s loyalty isn’t won on vague promises of future rewards alone? By sloppily serving the interests of too many masters, The Mummy fails on every conceivable level. It’s not fun, rousing or creepy, and easily the weakest and most unappealing variation on the ancient formula to date. Yes, even more so than Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. It’s undeniably pathetic the first chapter of the Dark Universe franchise can’t even make a convincing argument against tossing the boring old book back on the shelf.

1out of 5

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Film Review - WONDER WOMAN

The last 15-plus years must have felt like a cruel joke for die-hard Wonder Woman fans. Since X-Men and Spider-Man launched the superhero craze, a steady parade of male icons have headlined their own showcase vehicles as comic-dom’s definitive heroine sat dormant, ignored in favor of low wattage players like Ant-Man, Hellboy and Jonah Hex. Victim to the dumb belief audiences weren’t interested in female-fronted adaptations – thanks to reasonable public indifference to low-rent crapfests Catwoman and Elektra - the Amazonian crusader finally arrived last year with a brief-but-buzzworthy turn in the dire Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Given the DC Extended Universe’s lousy track record though, the potential for a good solo movie seemed highly dubious.
Let it be said firstly that Diana Prince’s first cinematic spotlight adventure, directed by celebrated Monster helmer Patty Jenkins, winningly honors the icon herself, who first exploded from the pages of 1941’s All Star Comics #8, even if the picture as a whole doesn’t deliver the desired punch. It’s a frustrating effort that gets so much right it becomes extra aggravating when it makes the same unfortunate stumbles - albeit to a less crippling degree - DC Films’ previous efforts have made. For a character brimming with confidence and bold individuality, why, oh why, couldn’t her movie follow suit?

Similar to 2013’s Man of Steel, Wonder Woman also dazzles from the get-go with an astonishingly well-crafted opening section depicting our lead’s origins in a grand far away land. Instead of a Kryptonian spacey prog-rock utopia, in this case it’s the lush and beautiful mystical island of Themyscira, created and hidden from mankind by Zeus, inhabited by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her legion of fierce Amazonians. Growing up in the protective shadow of her cautious mother, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot, with younger versions played by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) yearns to pursue the warrior heritage she sees embodied by her fearsome aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). And, after at last receiving permission, she trains grueling year after year in order to earn her rightful place alongside her fellow protectors.

As fate would have it, the island’s serene bubble is soon burst when a plane carrying WWI spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) inadvertently tears through its portal, luring German troops into paradise. Sympathetic to her American visitor’s haunted accounts of mankind’s suffering, Diana pledges to accompany him to home wherein she will vanquish the banished god of war Ares, who she holds responsible for the brutal conflict. Revolted by the limitations placed on women in early 20th century London society, she accompanies her new ally and his ragtag team into the grim, muddy hell of battle. There, she quickly begins providing hope for the hopeless, even while nefarious fiends Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) plot to thwart the impending ceasefire with weapons of unimaginably ghastly power.
Whereas MoS, BvS and Suicide Squad inexplicably went out of their way to completely bungle the company’s most beloved heroes and villains, Wonder Woman warrants major kudos for being the first of the studio’s efforts to completely understand the psychology, iconography and moral compass of its main character. No doubt helmer Jenkins - working with a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, a former writer/producer on The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal - played a key role in this achievement given her history of crafting grounded character studies. Although Diana faces similar challenges in translation as many of her fellow brand-mates, being essentially an invincible God lacking the messy and relatable quirks of Marvel’s creations, the film finds compelling methods of opening up her through her commitment to decency. While she can undeniably kick ass with the very best of them, without ever falling victim to action figure tedium, it’s the unwavering focus on her deep compassion, unflagging optimism and refusal to back down that draws us in. In the otherwise weirdly aggressive DCEU she’s the first truly inspirational protagonist to emerge.

All involved were extremely fortunate to find Wonder Woman’s ideal conduit in Gal Gadot, one of those perfect-in-every-way casting coups akin to Thor’s Chris Hemsworth or original Superman Christopher Reeve. Exuding benevolence, and boasting impressive physicality, solid comedic timing and an ability to sell both the crowd-pleasing and quietly intimate moments, the actress can frankly have the role as long as she wants it. Her Diana plays nicely off of established charisma-bomb Pine – whose Trevor is nicely layered and hyper-capable – and succeeds in finding the emotional truth in scenes that occasionally veer into cornball territory. Nailing ace material is impressive; however her ability to make even the script’s clumsier bits work on a character level is an even more profound testament to her skills.

Were this an auteur-driven superhero epic like those produced before the Marvel Studios model was born, such as Nolan’s Bat-films or Raimi’s Spider-Mans, Wonder Woman might have been as incredible as its star. Jenkins’ fascination with exploring the deeper themes of the character is commendable, and a sad rarity in franchise moviemaking. Alas, she must also serve the grand DCEU game plan, which means there’s only so much room for outside-the-box thinking. And part of the problem is the unnecessarily self-serious tone established by the preceding franchise entries, which runs awkwardly headlong into the picture’s high-spirited attitude and beaming hopefulness.

There’s a lightness of touch missing to these films that holds them back from ever truly soaring. You can feel it gradually overtake this movie bit by bit until the whole endeavor capsizes into a messy and tedious third act display of monologuing villain nonsense, ugly CG bedlam (after a thrilling early beach skirmish the action noticeably degrades into spastic choppiness throughout the runtime) and Captain America: First Avenger-ish payoffs. It’s curious why the studio is so determined to suck the fun and joy out of their work, when those elements have been so crucial in winning over generations of readers.
It really doesn’t help that Wonder Woman offers up some of the most uninspired antagonists in recent memory. Simply put, they bring next to nothing, and play an almost entirely insignificant role in Diana’s story, which seems like the sort of thing that should have been remedied before shooting. At least Dr. Maru strikes an impressive visual, with her deformed face covered by a makeshift cosmetic appliance echoing Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow, yet she’s the epitome of disposable outside of a solid scene with Pine. As for the big bad, let’s just say he’s somehow less impressive than BvS’s big lame-o Doomsday, which is a not an admirable feat.

Because of the obvious passion and fantastic contributions from Jenkins, Gadot and Pine you can’t help but root for the movie to work (especially when our heroine’s killer theme music kicks in) despite its forgettable batch of (non-Themyscira) supporting characters, hacky bookends and often sagging energy. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Wonder Woman is witnessing her worthy ascension to the top of the DCEU hero pack, which at least leaves us encouraged that next time around Diana may get the triumphant picture she truly deserves. Because there’s little question the silver screen needs her right now.

2.5 out of 5

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Film Review - PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES and ALIEN: COVENANT


Last summer Hollywood learned a costly lesson about the dangers of investing in unwanted blockbuster sequels. With massively-hyped follow-ups like Alice through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Independence Day: Resurgence imploding at the box office it became painfully evident that in an era of constant franchising there’s nothing special about returning to the familiar anymore. Especially if the predecessor wasn’t loved.

That lesson continues this season – it typically takes studios two-to-three years to course correct – with the release of fifth (!) and sixth (!!) entries in the once mighty Pirates of the Caribbean and Alien series. And in both cases these sequels come with the burden of having to erase the sting of disappointing previous instalments (2011’s nigh unwatchable On Stranger Tides and 2012’s muddled Prometheus, respectively) by attempting to rekindle the creative fire that sparked their beloved original launches. Although neither totally reinvigorates their brand, or offers an abundance of new or innovative ideas, one film nonetheless comes pretty darn close, while the other flounders.

When we last left Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), at the end of On Stranger Tides, he had defeated the nefarious Blackbeard, lost the Black Pearl to a shrinking spell and pretty much totally bored audiences into submission. Thus, many of that film’s hanging plot threads – such as Penelope Cruz – were jettisoned in favor of this loose reboot, Dead Men Tell No Tales, which introduces Henry Turner (bland Brenton Thwaites), teenage son of Pirates power players Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), and sends him on a quest to free his cursed pop from Davy Jones’ curse (see movie #3). This fateful mission draws in Jack, a now prosperous Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and Carina (bright spot Kaya Scodelario), a rebellious young woman of science who holds a cryptic map to Neptune’s trident, which could forever end evil magic on the high seas. Of course, in order to capture the mystical weapon, they have to contend with Javier Bardem’s ghostly Captain Salazar, an ooze-drooling fiend with a fiery hate-on for our iconic lead character.

Though it’s a dubious accomplishment, Dead Man Tell No Tales is a marked improvement over On Stranger Tides, which – bafflingly massive international business aside – left the franchise beached and lifeless like the Kraken in At World’s End. Piloted by Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who showed great promise in their debut, 2012’s Oscar-nominated real life adventure tale Kon-Tiki, this Pirates again emphasizes colorful showpieces (such as a great guillotine sequence and a zombie shark attack) and character banter over plot. Working from Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay, the duo is unable, like Gore Verbinski and Rob Marshall before them, to wrangle the absurdly over-complicated mythology into a coherent yarn. With two major McGuffins (the trident and Jack’s magical compass), and one minor (Carina’s map) in constant play, there’s no compelling focus, and pointless additions like Golshifteh Farahani’s exposition witch – who really should have been reconfigured into a major character – only muddies the already murky narrative waters.

Alas, it's also relentlessly obvious we’re essentially watching the fourth remake of Curse of the Black Pearl. All the elements are the same, including a stuffy British Naval adversary (David Wenham) and subplot involving parentage, albeit with a little more jazziness and vigor than last time. It’s a bit head-scratching, frankly, why the rinse-and-repeat formula has been so rigorously embraced. If ever there was a potential heir to the Indiana Jones episodic adventure throne, Pirates should have been it. But now? The whole enterprise feels soggy, from Depp’s one-joke protagonist – who lacks the necessary dimension that fellow character-actor-in-quirky-superstar-mode Tony Stark has in spades – to the recycled character types (Bardem at least deserves credit for a suitably loathsome bad guy turn, cartoonish motivation be damned!) and needlessly complex over-reliance on random incident over disciplined storytelling. Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t offensive or painful by any stretch; it just shows total ambivalence towards setting sail for newfangled creative horizons the way the first chapter did back in 2003. Yargh.

Hey! Speaking of ridiculously convoluted mythology, remember Prometheus? The weirdly confused prequel that almost instantly killed all interest in Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he (chest) birthed in 1979? Well, the acclaimed helmer is back with Alien: Covenant, an intentionally scaled down xenomorph-happy follow-up that doesn’t reach the heights of the original, or James Cameron’s unstoppable Aliens, yet surprisingly flourishes under the weight of low expectations and financial constraints.

Transpiring a handful of years after the gruesome loss of the Prometheus vessel, Scott’s third series entry opens with the crew of the colony ship Covenant experiencing a tragic loss during a long expedition to their prospective home. Upon discovering an alternative planet that appears to support life, acting captain Oram (Billy Crudup) orders an investigation of the world’s resources and environmental conditions. As so typically goes, though, the unit’s exploratory trek is abruptly interrupted by an infectious agent that proves a mite deadly. Before long chaos reigns and it's clear the vast majority of the unlucky visitors, including second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and android assistant Walter (Michael Fassbender, far and away the movie’s MVP), will have truncated lifespans. When it seems the situation couldn’t get any stranger, out the darkness emerges David (Fassbender 2.0), the abandoned AI last seen one movie ago as a decapitated head, with dark secrets to divulge.
While visibly a product of artistic backpedaling, intended to better service the wants of fans, there’s a tightness, simplicity and tension to Alien: Covenant that genuinely works. It’s undeniably less ambitious than Prometheus, but it’s also more engaging, answering its predecessor’s complex questions with greater interest than one would have ever hoped. Curiously, in fact, it is this further world building, and revelations involving David and Walter, that prove infinitely more rewarding – it is very odd the director isn’t overseeing the second Blade Runner given his obsession with AI here - than the usual H.R. Geiger creature stuff, which Scott seems only half-heartedly interested in. Despite introducing new breeds of nightmare fodder, there’s not a whole lot of variety in their modus operandi, and the director struggles to find memorable ways to stage their bloody attacks, outside of a truly gripping extended sequence in a medical bay.

Whether this experiment has been worth the investment still remains up for debate, if slightly less now. The film, like Prometheus, also stubbornly refuses to establish a sufficient bridge to Alien, however, due to the brilliantly twisted collaboration between Scott and Fassbender, and frequent bursts of sinister imagination peppered throughout, it’s hard to feel ripped off. Covenant succeeds in fueling the appetite for more, should Scott be allowed to once again release his terrifying xenomorphic children into the shadows.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: 2 out of 5
Alien: Covenant: 3.5 out of 5

Friday, May 19, 2017

Film Review - GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

“I’m gonna make some WEIRD shit!” That exclamation, blurted out, eyes agog and mind visibly racing, by Chris Pratt’s ever-ironic Star-Lord shortly after reuniting with his God-like father Ego (Kurt Russell), perfectly sums up the insanely energetic mindset of writer/director James Gunn on his return visit to the Marvel cosmic universe. Following up his surprise smash 2014 origin story, the helmer maniacally kicks into hyperdrive with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, doubling down on the irreverent hilarity of the first entry and ratcheting up the comic-book crazy to bracingly madcap effect. Remembering when we questioned whether Thor was a step too far for mainstream audiences to accept? Ah, how gently naive we all were.

Whereas the first time around Gunn was bolted down by the now boilerplate Marvel plot structure, complete with a magical item hunt motivated by a vaguely defined villain in Lee Pace’s Ronan, Vol. 2 sees him cutting loose and embracing the groove of his off-beat creation. And, unlike disappointing studio sequels such as Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2, the pressure to re-perform doesn’t hobble the movie, it liberates it. Akin to how Captain America: The Winter Soldier evolved from First Avenger, this return of the titular space-faring bad-asses deepens our understanding of the characters and their world, while opening genuinely exciting avenues for future excursions. It leaves one dizzy and salivating for Vol. 3, not brainstorming course corrections.

When we last left Guardians Peter Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn) and Groot (Vin Diesel) they were victoriously blasting off from Xandar in search of “something good, something bad… a bit of both.” They’ve found it, at the beginning of Vol. 2, after valiantly protecting the invaluable battery supply of the aristocratic gold-skinned Sovereign people from a giant slobbering space beastie. However, during the formal process of collecting their reward – Gamora’s evil adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillen), who has a considerable bounty on her head – unscrupulous mistakes are made and the gang are fast on the run from the planet’s haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, an ideal blend of camp and self-seriousness) and her army of warships.

During a frenetic escape through an asteroid field, the team encounters Quill’s mysterious biological dad, a celestial being who is in actuality a living, thriving planet. This revelation leads Star-Lord on a quest to learn more about his heritage and his long-lost pa's origins and powers, while Drax bonds with Ego’s gentle companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a socially stunted empath with closely kept secrets. In the meantime, Rocket and Groot, with an indignant Nebula in tow, are reunited with disgraced Ravager captain Yondu (Michael Rooker), and get swept up in violent space pirate drama. Ultimately, through shocks and surprises best left unmentioned here, these two engrossing tales intersect in a spectacular climax that delivers a rewarding mega-bomb of character growth and unexpectedly poignant emotional resolution.

For all of its triumphs and indisputable success both commercially and critically, Marvel has long established itself as a producer-controlled brand – not dissimilar from the Bond films under the Broccoli family - where the director’s vision takes a backseat to the grand company plan. And it’s hard to argue with the results for the most part! However, Guardians Vol. 2 feels like the first entry to truly be driven by the sensibilities and obsessions of the auteur behind the wheel. This movie could only have been made by James Gunn, and his peculiar punkish style – honed on several proudly Z-grade Troma productions (including Tromeo and Juliet!), as well as cult faves Slither and Super – is gloriously unleashed across every colorful frame. Striking a perfect balance of off-the-wall and sweet, he bombards the audience with fast-paced bursts of bizarro quips and sight gags, while never allowing the relentless humor to stand in the way of a strong emotional hook. He’s also, of course, a maestro of musical cues, knocking it out of the park again with a killer soundtrack that enlivens the already dynamic proceedings. Sequences set to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and Jay & the American’s “Come a Little Bit Closer” hit all the right buttons, while the opening credits, featuring Electric Light Orchestra, launch the picture on a perfect crowd-pumping note. And while he lacks the action chops of the Russo Brothers, of Winter Soldier and Civil War fame, he smartly devises clever ways to undercut the more bombastic moments with unexpected reveals or running jokes.

As opposed to Vol. 1, the momentum here feels noticeably far more propelled by the characters than the plot. Frankly, this may just be Marvel’s answer to Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo; a shaggy hangout film that sets up its story and then sits back and lets its heroes discover their own way to the conclusion, with plenty of amusing diversions along the way. For some this may prove frustrating. But Gunn and his actors understand these heroes and villains so deeply the pace never flags, and we gain priceless insight into their relationships and specific world views. Although the Fast and Furious series superficially crows on and on about the meaning of family, Guardians Vol. 2 is actively intrigued in exploring it, from the off-kilter dynamics between Quill and his dueling dysfunctional father figures Ego and Yondu to the resentful competitiveness dividing Gamora and Nebula. Every major figure has an interesting arc, from MVPs Rocket, baby Groot and Drax (Dave Bautista continues to be a surprising comedy weapon) all the way down to engaging second stringers Ayesha, Mantis and Sean Gunn’s antsy Ravager sidekick Kraglin.

There’s so much unbridled imagination, so much quirky joy running through Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 it often comes across as almost maddeningly effortless. Why can’t more colossal genre blockbusters hit equally rewarding notes or think outside the established boxes?! This is shaping up to be a very special franchise - so far the most confident and consistently winning among Marvel’s slew of very entertaining heavy-hitters – and Gunn leaves little doubt that wherever we find our heroes on their next adventure it thankfully won’t be anywhere safe or predictable.   

4 out of 5

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Film Review - BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

To compare Walt Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast remake to its 1991 animated classic predecessor is almost completely pointless. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Best Picture-nominated masterpiece is a nearly perfect work that, alongside The Lion King, marks the pinnacle of the company’s Renaissance era. Its haunting, heartfelt and gorgeous artistry forever evolved the form, moved generations of movie-lovers and now occupies the canon of all-time cinema triumphs. Whereas The Jungle Book offered plenty of wiggle room for invention, refining and reinterpretation, no such luck here. And so, rather thanklessly, director Bill Condon’s update of this tale as old as time can aspire only to honor what came before.

Luckily, for the most part this glossy big budget production does. While its reason for existing certainly has far more to do with profit generation than creative ambition, the filmmakers mostly succeed in pulling off the beloved highs and channeling enough of the original’s romantic and idealistic spirit to deliver an appealing old fashioned adventure steeped in new school technology. Whether or not that justifies the effort and countless millions is a question that will likely divide audiences, but there’s still enough novelty here to warrant attention as a modestly enchanting companion piece.

As you’d probably expect, there’s not a lot of variation in the story on this return visit. Belle (Emma Watson) is still a plucky and book-smart heroine, weary of day-to-day life in her “poor provincial town,” who winds up imprisoned in the forgotten castle of the monstrous cursed prince (Dan Stevens) after taking the place of her unlucky inventor father (Kevin Kline). The Beast’s abode is, of course, still occupied by the same gaggle of interfering household items, including Lumière (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), Chip (Nathan Mack) and Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), who enthusiastically adopt the role of matchmakers in order to break the spell that has altered them. Villainy is supplied once again by the narcissistic creep Gaston (Luke Evans), a boastful war hero with anger issues, and his simpering, visibly lovelorn cohort LeFou (Josh Gad, camping it up with wild abandon).

To be fair, though, the script, by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), doesn’t completely follow Linda Woolverton’s original screenplay – how it isn’t credited as source material is still a mite baffling - verbatim. Beauty and the Beast 2017 pleasantly expands on the courtship between the two confused prospective lovers, such as a nice addition wherein her passion for Shakespeare inspires him to call upon his own invaluable aristocratic education, and deepens the sadism and manipulative tendencies of Evans’ blustering antagonist. Unfortunately, they also graft a thoroughly unnecessary subplot regarding the Beast and Belle’s mothers onto the picture, the latter of which sticks out like a jarring sore thumb thanks to its too grim tone and a lazy throwaway plot device gimmick. At 129 minutes, tacked on material like this, a hacky and simplistic attempt to ground the characters’ psychology and give them a common bond, only takes up time with zero emotional reward.

Alas, it’s a bit of a damning testament that, more often than not, it is the new material that brings this Beauty and the Beast to a screeching halt, especially given the flawless economical storytelling of the 1991 film. Thankfully Condon, whose diverse and slightly batty resume, which includes entries like Kinsey, Dreamgirls and the two Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn installments, implicitly understands what he’s selling tickets for. He stages the cherished Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical numbers with a showman’s splashy aplomb (soaring opener “Belle” and the eternally chill-inducing title number are the most dazzling showstoppers), and even gives Beast a grandly tormented torch song of his own. And despite having the impossible task of creating visual splendor on par with Disney animation at its best, he and his art department blanket the screen with stylishly melancholy gothic atmosphere, complete with perpetual snowfall and crumbling stone architecture with a groaning pulse of its own. Echoes can often be felt of Jean Cocteau’s hypnotic 1946 version of the fairy tale.

Condon and his team deserve credit for the technical polish of this Beauty and the Beast, which is more of a sumptuous visual extravaganza than Maleficent, the Alice in Wonderland movies or Kenneth Branagh’s otherwise superior Cinderella. They’re so good at adapting the unforgettable iconography of the original that’s it’s easy to take for granted, as the parts that stumble stand out more than the countless elements that don't. Yet, it must be said, the Beast’s transformed servants simply don’t work when grounded in our physical reality. Their stiff, busy designs lack charisma and never achieve the larger than life presence of their more colorful counterparts. This deficiency is most felt in the huge “Be Our Guest” sequence, which the director goes for broke with, but is drained of life and charm thanks to its performers’ lack of broadly exaggerated body language and expressive facial gestures. It’s easy to see why the filmmakers didn’t bother to include the song “Human Again,” which was added for the original’s 2002 re-release.

Despite all the shiny bells and whistles, all would be for naught if the performances fell flat. And, thankfully, they're almost all uniformly winning. Watson cheerfully radiates Belle's proud, inquisitive confidence, and knows exactly how to sell the pure wide-eyed wonder of a Disney heroine. She generates strong sparks with Stevens’ poignantly mournful mo-capped Beast, who’s noticeably less animalistic than Robby Benson’s, and has gentle chemistry with the always reliable Kline. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, it’s Evans’ Gaston who steals the show! The actor, often cast in underwritten roles like the title bloodsucker in Dracula Untold and as the baddie of Fast & Furious 6, must have known he had landed an ideal showcase and attacks it with the ferocity of a pack of ravenous white wolves. He exhibits all the cartoonish, clueless vanity you’d hope (the “Gaston” performance doesn’t disappoint), with unsettling layers of intense psychological weirdness bubbling underneath.

With a flurry of live action Disney reinterpretations in the works – including The Lion King, Mulan, Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Peter Pan and *ahem* Dumbo – it’s tough to view this Beauty and the Beast as something that's overly special. However it’s a solidly transporting family entertainment that effectively taps into the audience’s profoundly powerful nostalgia for the 1991 film. This is skillful studio moviemaking, featuring many of the industry’s finest craftspeople working with ungodly resources to realize their vision. It just never convinces us into believing we’re watching magic.

3 out of 5