Find Me At Screen Rant

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Star Wars: The Force Awakens welcomes us all back to the summer of '77. Everything old is new again, especially that feeling audiences have craved for thirty years that the maligned prequels only fleetingly touched upon. The feeling that can only come from the Force. Director J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan gleefully take us on a lightspeed ride on the Way Back Machine straight to the first Star Wars (also known as Episode IV - A New Hope). Once again, and stop me if you've heard this one before, an evil galactic army (this time known as the First Order), led by an evil warrior strong in the Dark Side of the Force named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), threatens the Galaxy. Opposing them is a ragtag band of rebels (this time called the Resistance), led by General Leia Organa. Caught in the middle are new heroes, discovering their destinies while joining in this epic struggle of good vs. evil, walking nearly identical paths as the generation that came before them, but with intriguing new twists and a few answers to pivotal questions purposely withheld. 

The Force Awakens' greatest triumphs are how powerfully it recreates the sheer exhilaration of seeing Star Wars done well. The Force is a feeling, and The Force Awakens truly feels like Star Wars. When Rey (Daisy Ridley), the plucky scavenger from the desert world of Jakku, pilots the Millennium Falcon by the seat of her pants through the wreckage of a Star Destroyer while her new friend, the ex-Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega), shoots down the Tie Fighters chasing them, it's practically an out of body experience to witness. The movie's other great triumph are our new lead characters. The Force Awakens belongs to Rey and Finn, along with Poe Dameron and the lovable droid BB-8, all of whom are truly fantastic additions to the Star Wars universe. They are heroes worthy to succeed Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and the former Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), along with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, all of whom make appearances, some more impactful, and some frustratingly fleeting. Ford seems to once again be enjoying playing Han Solo, now older and even gruffer, but serving in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mentor role as he reluctantly guides Rey and Finn into the struggle between the First Order and the Resistance. It's been thirty years since the First Galactic Empire fell and Solo and his friends are the stuff of legend to Rey and Finn. "It's true. All of it," Solo assures them, and us. He should know, he was there and he was frozen in carbonite for a part of it.

Ostensibly a quest to find the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, missing, we're told, since his new Jedi Order was massacred by one of his pupils, The Force Awakens more than homages -- it outright mirrors (too) many key plot points of A New Hope: a droid hiding secret plans the First Order desperately wants. The First Order possessing a super weapon, Starkiller Base, many times bigger than the Death Star (with holograms shown to us helpfully illustrating this) than can destroy several planets at once (the physics are shakier than ever). This time two of our heroes, cool X-Wing jockey Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Rey herself, are captured and tortured by the First Order. Han Solo leads Finn and Chewbacca into Starkiller Base to bring down their defensive energy shield so that a fleet of X-Wing fighters can destroy the base via its one weak spot. ("There's always a weak spot," Han winks to the audience. We know.) A conflict between father and son. And yes, a beloved character tragically dies, murdered by a red lightsaber. Meanwhile, Rey receives a quickie download on the mythology of the Force from Maz Kanata, sort of an alien version of the woman who designed the costumes of The Incredibles, played by Lupita N'yongo. Rey suddenly is haunted by visions of Luke Skywalker she receives after being lured to his ancient lightsaber, as the Force awakens the dormant powers inside her. If we've seen this stuff before, it's because we have, and Abrams colors within the lines too closely. Abrams asks key questions, dazzles us with space battles and lightsaber duels, and then bolts out the door before dropping the answers we wait breathlessly to finally hear.

Who is Rey? The trailer answers that she's "no one" (dialogue not spoken in the movie). But this isn't true in the slightest: she's obviously the most important new player in Star Wars (and thank you, J.J. Abrams for creating a new female hero!). The Force Awakens teases Rey's "classified" (her words) identity throughout. Rey's parents abandoned her on Jakku as a child where she was forced to eke out a meager living waiting for them to rescue her, but she's tight lipped on even who they are. The obvious question: is she Luke Skywalker's daughter? The evidence is there: Luke's (and prior to that Anakin's) lightsaber called to her. She's an expert pilot, good with machines like Luke was. She's clearly powerful in the Force and meant to be a Jedi. But here's another theory: could Rey somehow be a progeny of Obi-Wan Kenobi? These clues are right there in plain sight: she speaks with a British accent (echoing Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan being the only actor in the original Star Wars who had a British accent but wasn't a villain). The color scheme of her clothes echoes Obi-Wan's robes. When she's captured by the First Order, she uses the Force to Jedi mind trick a Storm Trooper to escape, and then she skulks around Starkiller Base echoing how Obi-Wan once skulked around the Death Star. The truly important thing is Rey is wonderful, and Daisy Ridley is wonderful playing her. By the end, Rey deservedly inherits everything belonging to the heroes of the original Star Wars, from Luke's lightsaber to a mother figure in Leia to the Millennium Falcon itself. How frustrating we'll have to wait years now to perhaps find out whether the blood in her veins is Kenobi or Skywalker.

Someone who certainly has Skywalker blood in him is Kylo Ren. The Force Awakens makes no bones about who he is: the former Ben Solo, son of Han Solo and Leia, who betrayed Luke Skywalker and the Jedi to join the evil Knights of Ren, controlled by the new menace of the Galaxy, Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis). Ren's turn to the Dark Side literally drove her parents apart and wrecked their marriage. Promising the burnt ember of his grandfather Darth Vader's helmet that he'll "finish what Vader started," Han laments that Ren has "too much Vader in him." But it's actually more like Ren has too much Anakin Skywalker in him -- Kylo Ren is an emotional wreck, prone to fits of destructive fury, and it turns out he's actually an enormous puss, losing the  climactic lightsaber duel to Rey, a complete novice just discovering her Force powers. He even just stood there and watched Rey let the Force flow into her and did nothing when he could have finished her off. Sadly, Ren does accomplish what Luke Skywalker could never do and kills his father, granting Harrison Ford a wish he's had since he asked to have Han Solo killed off in Return of the Jedi. Driver plays Ren intriguingly however, conveying the conflict between the light and dark that's "tearing him apart," until he gives himself over to the Dark Side fully by committing patricide. As for Ren's master Supreme Leader Snoke, a CGI-creation witnessed only as a gigantic hologram, after six movies of Ian McDiarmid's fearsomely gleeful turn as the Emperor, Snoke is a rather unsightly letdown who should be trying to kill Hobbits rather than be the new Big Bad of Star Wars.

Perhaps the most relatable of the new Star Wars characters is Finn, formerly Storm Trooper designation FN-2187. Taken from his family as a child and brainwashed into a Storm Trooper, Finn nonetheless rebels against the bloody horrors the First Order makes him participate in and does a sensible thing: he runs. In the process, he discovers his first real friends in Rey and Poe Dameron, and becomes a warrior for good, a part of something greater than himself. He even gets to wield Luke's lightsaber for a while. One can't fault Finn for wanting to get as far away from the murderous First Order as he can. Boyega is fantastic playing a young man who struggles against his fear to become a hero and rescue his friends, and he draws one of the big laughs of the movie when he turns the tables on his former commander, the chrome-plated female Storm Trooper Captain Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie). With the short moments they have together, Finn and Poe Dameron quickly build a fast camaraderie and Poe is right, his borrowed leather jacket does suit Finn better than the white Storm Trooper costume does. Thumbs up, as BB-8 hilariously gives Finn when they abscond with the Millennium Falcon. BB-8 himself was simply amazing, instantly winning us over and upstaging his older Droid brethren Artoo and Threepio when they show up in the movie. 

Upon reflection, in a way, it's almost a shame Rey and Finn met Han Solo and Chewbacca. They were doing just fine on their own flying the stolen Millennium Falcon, and their getting mixed up in the Resistance war with the First Order created the circumstances that directly lead to the loss of Han Solo. The power of The Force Awakens felt strongest when we are hyperspace jumping along for the ride with Rey, Finn and BB-8, the new kids discovering the greatest sandbox in moviedom and playing with the toys of Star Wars for the first time. When Rey and Finn became part of the Resistance, they're a hot new young band ending up in a cover song playing most of the same notes and lyrics we've heard before. At least what happened in the second half of the movie was new to them, if not to most of us. Abrams and Kasdan punched too hard on the nostalgia button to recreate the magic of Star Wars, but for most audiences (especially the older folks still hellbent on "reliving their childhoods," whatever that means) it was a welcome familiar ride. In the grand scheme, this cover is a pretty worthy song on its own right. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Millennial Falcon, the past lovingly refurbished to be all shiny and like-new for the next generation. But with Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8, Star Wars has genuine and exciting new heroes we'll enjoy going on more rollicking space adventures with for years to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015




One of the greatest mysteries in movies is solved in Creed, the newest sequel to the Rocky saga about Apollo Creed's son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) following in his daddy's footsteps and becoming a fighter: Who won the private third fight between Apollo and Rocky Balboa at the end of Rocky III? When the answer comes, we find we would rather have just kept wondering. Creed is a mixed heavy bag; half an exploration of what it's like to be the progeny of a legend you never met but contain the innate talent of and the other half getting to spend a few more rounds with one of your childhood heroes, Rocky, nine years after his last improbable comeback fight left you cheering for more. Guess what wins the fight between the two? In style and substance, Creed is very much a Rocky movie, endearingly familiar and at times a rousing crowd-pleaser, but shouldn't it really have been more of a Creed movie?

Writer-director Ryan Coogler's love for Rocky and the Rocky series is palpable but largely swallows up poor Adonis. Coogler trades heavily on nostalgia, employing flashbacks, clips of past Rocky vs. Apollo fights, familiar posters of the Italian Stallion 30 years ago, and Rocky's stirring musical cues. Sylvester Stallone reprises Rocky once again, and, no surprise, he is the best thing about Creed. Rocky is even older, sadder, but also wiser and more resigned to being a rock, a survivor, when all his loved ones have passed on, including Paulie. Quick exposition explains his son Rocky Jr. has moved to Vancouver with his wife, leaving Rocky all alone in the restaurant he owns. But he remains a local legend beloved by the people of Philadelphia, and his unique Rocky wit and demeanor remain intact. When Adonis Johnson -- we learn Apollo had an affair and died in the ring against Ivan Drago before Adonis was born -- turns up at his restaurant claiming to be Apollo's son and asking for training, well, as Rocky states, "I've seen this sort of thing before." He reluctantly takes the kid on as his protege and finds much more success than he did training Tommy Gunn 25 years ago. Rocky relishes being the crusty old trainer this time, delving into Mickey's old bag of tricks like making Adonis catch a chicken.

Adonis, a lean, trim light heavyweight, is a curious cat. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died soon after Apollo, he grew up in the system, a violent kid prone to fighting, until he's adopted by Apollo's wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis grew up in Apollo's mansion, loved, surrounded by wealth, college educated, but he spends his weekends secretly fighting in Mexico. Adonis throws away a promising business career because he feels the need to fight, so he moved to Philadelphia to seek the tutelage of his father's best friend and greatest opponent. The quest of the son to find and become like his father is a classic and compelling narrative, but Creed muddies the waters by latching too much onto following beats from Rocky's story instead of discovering more about what is/was special and unique about Adonis and Apollo. Wouldn't you know it, after one professional fight as "Adonis Johnson," Adonis' parentage is discovered and he's offered a one in a million shot to go to London to fight the light heavyweight champion of the world because of his name -- just like Apollo once offered Rocky because he loved the nickname "the Italian Stallion."

Adonis' personal crisis becomes whether or not he should accept his father's famous last name and all the pressure that comes with living up to it. Meanwhile, old man Rocky receives truly distressing medical news. When that happens, we and Adonis become much more concerned with Rocky's mortality than with the success of Adonis' career. Adonis spends the entire movie in the shadow of two legends and never really fights his way out from under it. Jordan, a charismatic actor, does his best, though in the ring, he's an angry bull who fights like Rocky -- take hits until you get mad -- and lacks the fancy footwork and charming pizzazz of his old man. But does Adonis have the heart, of Apollo or Rocky? Does he have the Eye of the Tiger? We are forced to ask ourselves, why root for Adonis? He's not an underdog or a hard luck case; he's "Hollywood" Adonis Creed, the rich son of a beloved former heavyweight champion with a beautiful girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and Rocky Balboa in his corner. He has a long way to go to be as good as his father, if ever, and wearing the stars and striped-emblazoned trunks Apollo and Rocky both wore may speak to a legacy, but Adonis never really becomes his own man. He's certainly not yet a champion. If Creed wishes to go the distance and further continue the Rocky saga, Adonis and the audience will really, truly be lost when the sad day inevitably comes Rocky Balboa loses his final round.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2




A black cloud of inevitability hangs over The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2. It all comes down to this. War between the thirteen Districts of Panem, united under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) is in full effect. Opposing the will of the gathered people is the Capitol, the preening, privileged upper class of Panem, ruled over by the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The Rubicon has been crossed, as the old saying goes. There's no turning back and restoring the country to how it was. Snow, himself dying from an illness, is singularly concerned with the Mockingjay, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the rebellious teenage girl who has grown into his arch nemesis and is the living symbol and rallying cry of the resistance against the Capitol. The feeling is mutual; early in the movie, Katniss resolves to assassinate Snow. Everyone and everything in the resistance falls into place to support this plan, whether Katniss knows it or not. 

Mockingjay, Part 2 really only has one thing on its mind: placing Katniss in the Capitol to confront Snow and ending the Hunger Games saga with violence and despair. The preamble has all been established in the previous chapter; Part 2 is focused, for better or worse, on its grisly resolution and price Katniss must pay to end the worst years of her young life. In Part 2, a strike team consisting of Katniss, her two devoted male suitors Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), videographers Cressida (Natalie Dormer), Pollux (Elden Henson), Castor (Wes Chatham), soldiers Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Jackson (Michelle Forbes), and Katniss' fellow Hunger Games victor Finnick O'Dair (Sam Claflin) slip into the Capitol, which has been evacuated and transformed into a deadly new Hunger Games Arena, filled with lethal booby traps like landmines, machine gun turrets, and boiling oil tsunamis that is somehow easily outrun and outclimbed. Ostensibly, they're just there to shoot more propaganda video starring Katniss. Katniss claims she's on a secret mission from Coin to assassinate Snow. Everyone knows otherwise; this is Katniss' personal vendetta. They're all cool with it. Most of them don't survive, but in for a penny, in for a pound. 

Francis Lawrence, who previously directed Will Smith in I Am Legend and the short-lived but beloved by those who watched it series Kings, dips into both wells for Mockingjay, Part 2 with some thrilling results. The best sequences in Part 2 see Katniss and her team wading through the dark, forbidding sewers beneath the Capitol, where they battle new "Mutts" unleashed by Snow. We've come a long way from Gary Ross' first Hunger Games movie, with its ugly, unfinished-looking CGI hybrid dogs. These new "Mutts" look like an evolved version of the "Dark Seeker" vampires in I Am Legend, and they're horrifying, screaming out of the shadows to tear at our heroes with razor teeth and claws. Perhaps the best and most relentless action we've seen in the entire Hunger Games franchise is Katniss and her friends battling these vampire Mutts with their guns, swords, bow and arrows, desperately trying to escape to higher ground. When they reach a subway platform, Capitol storm troopers are there waiting for them, opening fire with guns and grenades in a sequence as ruthlessly violent and unfit for this franchise's young audience as any war movie. 

When it comes to the grim realities and casualties of war, Mockingjay, Part 2 is playing for keeps. Katniss tragically learns this first hand as she tries to slip into Snow's mansion incognito, only to be caught in a bombing raid that murders dozens of children, including her beloved sister Primrose (Willow Shields), who arrived as a medic to aid the injured. For a teenage girl who has suffered as Katniss has -- she has the PTSD to prove it -- the death of Prim is a dagger to the heart. Taking Prim's place in the Hunger Games is the reason for all of the death and destruction that followed. The liberation of Panem is the prize hard won, but for Katniss personally, what was it all for when her sister died anyway? Mockingjay, Part 2 brings the rivalry between Snow and Katniss to a satisfying conclusion, when he reveals to her that they've both been pawns -- so busy paying attention to each other that they both played right into the usurper Coin's hands. Turns out Coin is no better than Snow; her first order of business as President is to hold yet another Hunger Games. Snow's laughter when Katniss chooses to put an arrow in Coin's heart instead of his - payment in full for engineering the events of Prim's death -- was chilling. The devil you know is better than the devil you don't.

As for the two boys in Katniss' wake, waiting for her to choose between them, Gale blows his chance with Katniss when he essentially reveals it was his kind of military strategy that Coin used which lead to Prim's death. Gale laments he should have taken Peeta's place in the Hunger Games originally; maybe he's right and maybe for him being dead would be better than living the rest of his life in Katniss' Dead Zone, forever banned from even her Friend Zone. Meanwhile, Peeta, who is still suffering from being brainwashed as Katniss' assassin at the hands of Snow, is essentially dragged along for the march into the Capitol for reasons that are inexplicable. Why bring a ticking time bomb who wants to kill your Mockingjay? He was of no use in battle and had no bearing on the final events that lead to the defeat of Snow. No matter, Peeta is the one for Katniss, and always was. Their ultimate reconciliation and future together was written in the stars, or at least by creator Suzanne Collins.

While fan favorite characters like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) make token appearances, The Hunger Games saga, the most successful female-lead Hollywood action franchise of all-time, ends as it began: singularly focused on Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, and the woman who portrays her, Jennifer Lawrence. No one else could have anchored this franchise with the force and ferocity Lawrence brought to her megastar-making role. Mockingjay, Part 2 satisfyingly wraps up this story of war, loss, trauma, and revolution, which began with children dying in a forest for blood sport and ends with the reluctant face of a rebellion cradling a child of her own. Katniss will be haunted by the trauma of the Hunger Games for the rest of her life, but because of her sacrifices, her children will never know the horror of being forced to murder other children and survive in the Hunger Games. Was it worth it? For real.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Peanuts Movie



It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was wintry snow day where all of the kids in Charlie Brown's whimsical unnamed American suburban town were ice skating and playing in the snow. Then the Little Red Haired Girl moved into the house across the street from Charlie Brown and upended his life (for the better). Of course, during this snow day, Charlie Brown was futilely trying to fly a kite and avoid the dreaded Kite-Eating Tree, to no avail. That blockhead. The Peanuts Movie immerses us like never before in the world created by the late Charles M. Schulz, brighter, more colorful, as idiosyncratic and filled with boundless optimism as ever. The gang's all here, just as Schulz wrote and drew them for 50 years, with the filmmakers taking his designs and gorgeously animating them for the big screen vividly in three dimensions. The Peanuts Movie is the big screen party with Charlie Brown and Snoopy we've always waited for.

Eternally children, but with the inner complexities and anxieties of adults, Charlie Brown and his friends are just as we remember them. The Peanuts Movie dutifully calls back to all of their greatest hits and defining personality quirks: Charlie Brown is still the world's worst baseball manager. Lucy is still Charlie Brown's biggest detractor, yet also his psychiatrist (for 5 cents a session), and still in love with Schroeder. Schroeder still loves Beethoven and can perform concertos on his tinker toy piano. Linus is still wise and attached to his security blanket, hoping the Little Red Haired Girl will believe in the Great Pumpkin. Sally, Charlie Brown's little sister, is still in love with Linus, her sweet baboo. Pig Pen is still perpetually covered in dust. Peppermint Patty is still an oblivious tomboy and Marcie remains her smart, loyal assistant. A couple of interesting changes The Peanuts Movie makes places Peppermint Patty and Marcie in Charlie Brown's neighborhood and classroom; in the comic strip they lived across town. Linus, Lucy's little brother in the comic, is also in Lucy and Charlie Brown's class, which must either make him Lucy's twin or he's smart enough to be moved up a grade. And of course, there's Snoopy, with Woodstock at his side, Charlie Brown's incredible beagle who sleeps on top of his doghouse and can do pretty much anything. The very best change The Peanuts Movie makes is to have Snoopy, who's usually a little distant to his owner in the comic unless it's suppertime ("Oh yeah, the round-headed kid"), be a devoted best pal to Charlie Brown, who needs all the help he can get.

In The Peanuts Movie, Charlie Brown is in love and must overcome "all of his inadequacies" and find a way to talk to the Little Red Haired Girl (who remains nameless. Schroeder and Franklin also still amusingly lack surnames). His own wishy-washy worst enemy, Charlie Brown is still a sweet, compassionate boy with good intentions. He tries his best to impress the Little Red Haired Girl by winning a dance contest and actually reads the entire volume of "War in Peace" to write a shared book report while she's out of town. When Charlie Brown mistakenly gets a perfect score on a standardized math test, he becomes a local celebrity with all of the other kids becoming his followers, to Lucy's chagrin. (Sally taking the opportunity to market and merchandise her famous big brother makes her a pretty sly dog.) Meanwhile, continually spurned from attending school with the other kids, even when in the guise of Joe Cool, Snoopy discovers a typewriter and lets his imagination loose writing the Great American Novel and living out his adventures as the World War I Flying Ace dog fighting with the Red Baron over the skies of France while trying to rescue his beagle love Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth). A fantastic running gag is Snoopy imagining himself as the Flying Ace shot down behind enemy lines in Occupied France trying to make it back to his barracks, when he's actually appearing in the other kids' homes, in their backyards climbing on their clotheslines, or in their tubs during bath time. 

A smart, joyous and beat-perfect adaptation of Charles Schulz's comics and the holiday cartoons generations grew up with (complete with the beloved Vince Guaraldi "Linus and Lucy" jazz theme and the honking sound for every adult in the movie), The Peanuts Movie warmly trades on the three key lessons Charles Schulz's comics teach us: Like Charlie Brown, you can overcome your anxieties and be the best person you can be, and it's enough. And you are not bound by your circumstances, like Snoopy, who may just be a beagle, but uses his limitless imagination to live a rich, full life of adventure. The third lesson may be the best one: there's no greater friendship than a boy and his dog. The Peanuts Movie is a love letter to Charlie Brown and Snoopy, to Linus and Lucy, to their creator and to the millions of fans who grew up with them. It's a victory deserved and well earned, especially for a boy named Charlie Brown.

Friday, November 6, 2015



The Dead Are Alive

SPECTRE, like the tentacles of its octopus logo, brings all of Daniel Craig's James Bond movies together, merging them as one complete narrative. The nefarious organization bent on world domination that Sean Connery defeated, that left George Lazenby emotionally wounded, and that Roger Moore ended once and for all returns in a 21st century incarnation to plague Daniel Craig's 007 in SPECTRE, revealing itself as "the architect of all of [Bond's] pain." Indeed, James Bond unwittingly played a part in SPECTRE's very creation. This new SPECTRE is bigger than the original 1960s crime syndicate; now, SPECTRE is a multinational organization secretly running much of the world, its tentacles reaching further and deeper than ever before. Instead of stealing nuclear missiles to blackmail NATO or highjacking the space program, the new SPECTRE's stock and trade is information and surveillance, controlling and manipulating anyone and anything by seeing and hearing virtually everything. Nearly every enemy Craig's Bond has faced, we learn, was part of SPECTRE: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) in Casino Royale, Greene (Mathieu Amalric) in Quantum of Solace, Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall, the entire Quantum organization, and even his late, beloved Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Naturally, the only one who can stop such an insidious threat is an extremely well dressed man with a gun.

A globe hopping action yarn that's also a very personal story of revenge, SPECTRE tries to have it all but tends to overreach. In a spectacular opening sequence at the Dia De Los Muertos festival in Mexico City, we find Bond gone rogue, on a manhunt for a man named Sciarra, that ends in explosive fashion, as all of Bond's manhunts must. Bond is once more "grounded" by the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and stripped of his spying privileges as MI6 continues to reel from the events of Skyfall, faced with being replaced by a new global organization of shared intelligence headed by C (Andrew Scott, the malevolent Moriarty from Sherlock), who is clearly in league with SPECTRE. We learn that Bond, rather touchingly, is still taking marching orders from his mentor, the late former M (Judi Dench), who charged him from the grave to find and destroy the secret organization she has been aware of probably since the beginning. Bond absconds to the continent; to shadowy Rome, to the snowy peaks of Austria, to the dusty deserts of Morocco, searching for SPECTRE and finding more than he bargained for, as a ghost from the past emerges from the shadows. Meanwhile, on the homefront, the MI6 crew led by M, including Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and Tanner (Rory Kinnear), get plenty of field time trying to save the Double 0 program as a whole from extinction. (Though why they didn't call for backup from the other Double 0 agents, M only knows.)

Director Sam Mendes and his screenwriters, John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, having emptied the clip and scored the biggest bullseye with Skyfall, this time delve into the classic James Bond movies. They emerged with a Greatest Hits of the franchise collection, letting Daniel Craig's 007 walk in the footsteps of his predecessors. SPECTRE is a cornucopia of tributes to past James Bond movies, specifically Connery and Moore's. A striking new silent but deadly hulking hitman in the vein of Oddball and Jaws, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), all but destroys Bond in a devastating fight scene on a train from Tangiers with odes to From Russia with Love. The watery catacombs beneath MI6 invoke the tunnels beneath Istanbul in From Russia with Love. Bond engages in a breakneck car chase in Rome, putting his souped up new Aston Martin DB10 and its gadgets through its paces, complete with gags in the Roger Moore fashion. Craig's Bond behaves more scandalously than ever before, especially when forcing himself on Monica Bellucci, who is not quite in mourning for her husband Bond killed in Mexico City. Bond brazenly attends a shadowy SPECTRE meeting (the first time James Bond has ever been to one), an updated version of the SPECTRE meeting at the onset of Thunderball. And what SPECTRE meeting is ever complete without an execution at the conference table? When Bond arrives at SPECTRE headquarters in the Moroccan desert, we see it's a sprawling fortress inside an impact crater that very much resembles the SPECTRE base inside the Japanese volcano in You Only Live Twice. And when Bond comes face to face with his arch nemesis, Franz Oberhauser (Christophe Waltz) a former childhood mate presumed dead but now the leader of SPECTRE, well, the blinded eye and facial scar Bond gifts him with, plus the white fluffy cat, means Oberhauser must really be the ultimate blast from the past: Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Their final confrontation over the Thames and the ruins of the M16 base Silva demolished in Skyfall takes place with a helicopter -- a helicopter is the means by which Roger Moore finally executed Blofeld at the start of For Your Eyes Only.

More settled and comfortable in Bond's skin -- more James Bondian than ever -- Craig attends to his business of action, seduction, and death with efficiency. Unlike Skyfall, which challenged Craig's Bond's very existence and stripped him of M, the second woman in his life he actually loved besides Vesper, Bond, and therefore SPECTRE, feel a bit cold and distant, despite its splendid locales and incredible spectacle. It's only when he meets his new Bond Girl Madeleine Swann (the fetching Lea Seydoux), the daughter of his one of his oldest foes Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), does Bond's blood begin to run red hot. Bond's scenes with Swann are some of SPECTRE's best, and there's a palpable chemistry between them lacking between Craig's Bond and every Bond Girl since Vesper Lynd. Bond's confrontations with Blofeld feel a bit underwhelming, despite their shared past (the young James came to live with Franz Oberhauser for a time after he was orphaned -- they are ersatz "brothers") and Blofeld gleefully admitting he personally had everyone Bond ever cared about killed. Bond is once again tortured like he was in Casino Royale, this time by needles bored into his neck, but despite Blofeld's promises of amnesia and catatonia, Bond emerged unscathed, despite a couple of pricks. When he does get to interact with his fellows in MI6, Bond classically toys with Q, stealing the newest Aston Martin right from under his nose, and flirts with Moneypenny. Both Bond and Moneypenny seem relieved that she doesn't pine for him as others have for previous Bonds.

Could SPECTRE ever have equalled Skyfall, a one in a million (or rather, one in a Bond -- the third film for a Bond actor is usually the best one) achievement for the Bond franchise? Perhaps not. One can even surmise this from the title song: Sam Smith's "The Writing's On The Wall" is no "Skyfall" by Adele. But as a love letter to the best of the franchise's past, brimming with blistering action, global adventure, awesome spectacle and copious amounts of destruction and death, SPECTRE delivers admirably. Overall, SPECTRE falls in line with Connery's fourth, Thunderball, a bigger, more sprawling and ambitious follow up to his most popular, Goldfinger, but not quite its equal. That is still much preferable to what followed Moore's finest Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me, the Bond in outer space misstep Moonraker or Pierce Brosnan's franchise-stopper Die Another Day.  If Daniel Craig indeed stars in a fifth 007 film, he will still be two short of Connery and Moore, but by that time, about 12 years, Craig will be the actor with the longest tenure as James Bond. SPECTRE concludes with Bond seemingly out of the British Secret Service, driving off into the sunset with Madeleine in his Aston Martin DB5, leaving behind all of his ghosts. Of course, James Bond will return. Bond chose not to exercise his license to kill and let Blofeld live, an act of mercy that will likely ensure no matter what adventure awaits him next, James Bond will not soon escape the spectre of that mistake.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Supergirl: The Importance of Being Kara



Kara Danvers isn't meant to fetch coffee. She isn't meant to blend in. She isn't meant to be anything less than excellent. Because Kara Danvers was born Kara Zor-El on the planet Krypton, and our world has come to know her as Supergirl. Supergirl debuted last night on CBS as everything it was meant to be: the first network television show about a comic book female superhero since Lynda Carter wore Wonder Woman's satin tights nearly 40 years ago. More importantly, Supergirl inherited and proudly wore on her sleeve the legacy of her older cousin Superman, specifically the legacy of Superman's most revered and beloved popular incarnation: Richard Donner's Superman starring the late Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Supergirl did this while forging her own path through the skies, all while remaining charmingly and winningly Supergirl, thanks to the effervescent, character-defining performance of Melissa Benoist. She is Supergirl, now and forever.

In many ways, Supergirl is the fusion and fruition of the sum lessons in recent years executive producer Greg Berlanti has learned from his runaway hit superhero shows Arrow and The Flash. Berlanti and his Supergirl team, executive producers Ali Adler, Sarah Schechter, AJ Kreisberg, and Geoff Johns, with the biggest assist ever from David Rappaport Casting for finding the perfect Supergirl in Melissa Benoist to wear the red cape and coat of arms of the House of El, are blending a frothy super cocktail, mixing equal parts homage to Superman's classic tropes, their modern sensibilities of how to do a superhero show, and a healthy and welcome dose of girl power feminism. Supergirl isn't just for girls, Supergirl is a hero for everyone, but how timely and important is her presence as someone girls can look up to? In a pop culture usually reveling in dark, tormented anti-heroes (the Arrow is even one of them, though he's looking to lighten up after going Green), Supergirl is a shining beacon of optimism. She's a nice person and she's fun -- even moreso than The Flash -- and while the superhero life she chose will bring with it bleak, terrible moments and heartache, Supergirl promises to meet it all with a gee whiz sense of fun and adventure. And, most importantly, with the Hope the S on her chest represents.

What's more, Supergirl isn't alone. Her cousin may be off doing his own thing -- hey, it's a big world, even for flying cousins from Krypton -- but in tried and true Berlanti fashion, Supergirl is a superhero with an all-important support system. Her work life as Kara Danvers may put her in the crosshairs of her tough as nails boss Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), CatCo CEO and the second most powerful woman in National City, but she has Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer James (not "Jimmy") Olsen (Mehcad Brooks), sent by her cousin Clark Kent himself, to watch her back. Plus she has Winn Schott (Jeremy Jordan) for extra support, though Winn is already quickly learning that being in Supergirl's Friend Zone may be worse than being trapped in the Phantom Zone. James and Winn, two smart, good looking guys at work who are into her -- poor Kara? CatCo is the 21st century update of the Daily Planet from Superman: The Movie mixed with a winking dose of The Devil Wears Prada, but Supergirl captures the goofy rhythms and comedy of Christopher Reeve knowingly prat falling across the Daily Planet in ways the heavy handed Superman Returns largely missed. Plus if Kara ever wants to go home for advice from her adoptive Earth parents, she need only visit the Danvers played by former Supergirl Helen Slater and former Superman Dean Cain. The classic Krypton connections run deep on Supergirl, all wonderful nods to the past that Berlanti and his team, superfans themselves, embrace wholeheartedly.

Meanwhile, Supergirl introduced the DEO, the Departmartment of Extranormal Operations, an alien-fighting strike force headed by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) that counts Kara's adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) as an agent. The DEO is an interesting spin on the established backup squads Arrow and The Flash enjoy; unlike Team Arrow and the techies at STAR Labs, who are all ride or die loyal to their superheroes, the DEO isn't necessarily Team Supergirl. Alex Danvers may do anything to protect her Super sister, but the DEO intriguingly blames Kara for inadvertently bringing scores of alien criminals to Earth. The Camp Rozz concept not only brings with it an untold number of baddies for Kara to fight, but it cleverly and immediately gives her a mission and raison d'etre to indulge in superheroics. Kara will have to prove herself, not just to the world, but to the DEO. But the overarching lesson of all this support is one of the hallmarks of the Greg Berlanti superhero shows: no matter how super they are -- and it doesn't get more super than Supergirl -- they (nor we) can't do it alone. We need our family, we need our friends, we need loved ones to watch our backs, to pick us up when we're knocked down, to straighten us up when we're off our path. Just as Alex does to Kara when she doubts herself in the pilot episode. We are the sum total of who we have in our lives. We're super together.

To me, the most important and telling line of dialogue Kara utters is the reason why she confided who she really is to Winn on the CatCo roof: "I really want someone to be excited for me." This is who Kara is: she's extraordinary and she not only wants to be what and who she is, she wants an attagirl. And why not? She caught an airplane falling from the sky, she saved hundreds of lives. She did an unbelievably courageous and heroic thing. Why would she want to hide herself now? In Supergirl, we're about to watch Kara Zor-El become the hero she was always meant to be, not as a shadow or reflection of her famous cousin, but on her own merits. Kara is going into the family business of crimefighting and world-saving, and she really wants us to be excited for her. Her optimism is infectuous, Kara choosing to wear the S on her chest is a meaningful, life-affirming act on her part. It is an awesome thing, to embrace who you are, to take the steps to become everything you're meant to be. Supergirl is here for a reason, to be a new light to show us the way. We're so lucky to have her. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jem and the Holograms



Glamour and Glitter, Fashion and Fame

Jem and the Holograms is a surprisingly earnest attempt to tell a contemporary rags to riches story of a nobody who becomes a famous pop star, centering on themes of finding identity and authenticity in a music industry that prizes manufactured celebrity. "You're famous, not just Internet famous!" is excitedly announced to Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples), a talented but introverted orphan, who reluctantly uploads a song on YouTube in the guise of her face-painted, pink-wigged persona "Jem." Her viral video "gets, like, a million hits" (and more likes and positive comments than hateful messages from trolls - hey, it's a movie!), which attracts the attention of a major LA record producer, played by Juliette Lewis. Accepting an offer for herself and her three "sisters," her actual younger sibling Kimber (Stefanie Scott), rebellious Aja (Hayley Kiyoko), and kleptomaniac Shana (Aurora Perrineau) to perform three concert dates in LA, Jerrica narrates her improbable 30 day rise to fame as Jem in the manner a modern teenager would, via a YouTube confessional video. When the four girls are whisked to LA by Lewis, they leave behind their aunt Molly Ringwald, thereby being passed from the care of one famous 1980's actress to another.

Fans of the Jem and the Holograms cartoon who are of a certain age will bemoan the movie's eschewing the cartoon's mythology for a modern setting and laser focus on speaking to the Tumblr-posting, Instagramming youth of today. Sorry, moms, this Jem is for them. Jem provides odes to the 1980s in Jem's KISS-inspired glam rock look and how her band performs with keytars and flying V guitars. The way the famous dialogue from the cartoon is worked into the screenplay is truly outrageous. However, the movie is maybe 10% comprised of YouTube and Instagram style videos of various fans of all ages, genders, and races confessing their love for Jem and how she inspired them intercut throughout. (Director Jon M. Chu drops in a couple of his famous friends to do gushing Jem tributes, including one that was particularly electrifying.) Jem also outright borrows the staccato drumbeat style of Birdman and Whiplash, as well as homaging the iconography of the biggest female-led teen franchise of the decade, The Hunger Games. Jerrica and her sisters' makeovers blatantly echo how Katniss was transformed into the Girl on Fire by Cinna and her pink dress during her second performance as Jem would make Caesar Flickerman positively gush all over the stage. Jem and the Holograms is a gumball machine hoping to provide a flavor that will please everyone.

"Okay, here's where it gets weird," Jerrica promises halfway through the movie, and she wasn't kidding. Beating Star Wars: The Force Awakens to the big screen, Jerrica happens to have her own version of R2-D2/BB-8, a cute little robot called 5N3RGY ("Synergy"). And yes, Jem does say "It's showtime, Synergy!" How could she not? In between rehearsals, performing shows, and learning how to be pop stars, Jerrica and her sisters launch themselves on a scavenger hunt across LA, following clues left behind by Jerrica and Kimber's dead father. Their father was a loving weirdo, a rock music-loving inventor who did a lot of bizarre forward-thinking, hiding key parts of Synergy around LA, expecting his daughter to find them, coincidentally right when she was having her greatest crisis of self. Her reward for repairing Synergy is a hologram just like Artoo showed Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, where her dead father provides Jerrica with the secret plans to the destroy the Death Star with a heartfelt ten minute speech about how special she is and how she was always his favorite -- with not a word about her younger sister, his other daughter! Not even a "tell your sister I said 'hey.'"

Meanwhile, becoming the famous pop star Jem isn't without its turmoil. Jerrica finds herself embroiled in a mother-son power struggle within their record studio between Lewis and Rio (Ryan Guzman), who becomes Jerrica's handler and of course sides firmly with his new hot young teen girl friends. Jerrica is pressured to sign on the dotted line as a solo star and send her sisters packing, or else they won't have the money to let Ringwald keep their home from being foreclosed. Once Jerrica signs her exclusive contract (she signs it "Jem," a plot point the movie doesn't follow up on) with Lewis, the screenplay launches into a bewildering third act full of bizarre circumstances and plot holes. Kimber, Aja, and Shana turn on Jem, accusing her of abandoning them and craving a solo career -- which isn't the case at all and could have been immediately settled with a simple conversation, but screenwriting 101 said the band must break up at the end of Act II to reunite in Act III, so. (The band's reunion happens outside Jerrica and Kimber's childhood home, where the family living inside must have been wondering what those five weirdos were doing outside on their porch.) There's also a strange heist subplot involving breaking into the Starlight Records building safe to steal back Jerrica's earrings that had Rio hijack his mother's car and hide Jerrica in the trunk, none of which was necessary when he's the number two person in the company and has access to go where ever he wants. When Lewis finds out, she puts the building on lockdown and demands they find Jem, never once looking in the Hollywood Hills mansion she provided Jerrica as her LA home base. And why was Lewis so intent on forcing Jerrica to be a solo act when Jem and her sisters as a band was clearly working?

Jem and the Holograms is a rock star story of "glamour, glitter, fashion, and fame" where there's no mention of drugs, no drinking, and the only restriction on Jerrica and her sisters, all of whom are minors, is a midnight curfew, which they freely break (and is already 3 hours later than the curfew Hugh Hefner imposes on his Playmates.) And yet, there are moments when Jem and the Holograms hits exactly the right notes, such as their first live performance when the electricity inexplicably cuts out in the venue and Jem energetically leads the audience into an acoustic number to close her set. (Each of her sets seem to consist of only one song.) Jem's music is decidedly pure "gets stuck in your head" modern pop in the Taylor Swift mode. But Jem's secret weapon is Aubrey Peeples herself, a bright, winning performer who endearingly conveys Jerrica's struggles against the artifice of her Jem persona, her "secret identity crisis." The message of Jem and the Holograms seems to be that the people who love Jem project themselves onto Jem, therefore, as Jem tells her fans, "You're all Jem." Which suits the current pop culture where all you need is a camera and an Internet connection to become your own superstar. But what of the Misfits, the evil version of Jem and the Holograms in the cartoon who try continually to destroy Jem? They're in there too, in a post-credits coda surprise setting up a sequel the filmmakers clearly hope for -- if Jem and the Holograms can make enough ca$h.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Beasts of No Nation



"When this war is over, I am thinking I cannot go back to doing childish things."

In America, children play Call of Duty on their PlayStations. In the unnamed West African country setting of Cary Joji Fukunaga's urgent and astonishing Beasts of No Nation, children who should be playing together and enjoying their childhood are conscripted to fight a real war. Beasts of No Nation is the story of one such child, Agu (Abraham Attah), who grew up in a "buffer zone" surrounded by the fighting of his country's civil war, until government troops roll into his village and slaughter his father, grandfather and brother. Separated from his mother and baby siblings, perhaps forever, Agu is forced to flee into the bush until he's "saved" by the NDF, a ragtag battalion of young rebel soldiers lead by their Commandant (Idris Elba, the only professional actor in the picture). With the NDF, Agu is indoctrinated into a horrible world of war; he learns how to kill with his bare hands, participates in the wonton slaughter of his people, and struggles to survive and gain acceptance among the other children fighting this brutal war. All of this shatters his innocence in tragic, heartbreaking ways, as we learn through his touching conversations with God via Agu's voice over narration.

Beasts of No Nation can be seen as a grim sort of Peter Pan story, with Elba's Commandant as a grown up Pan and the Lost Boys his battalion. "I am their father and they are my family," Elba declares to his Supreme Commander, and we see Elba is the end result of a lifetime of fighting a rebellious war, his own innocence and even his belief in his cause lost long ago. Elba entertains his young, devoted, fanatical soldiers with ganji, stories of women they will bed and how they will share in their country's "resources" when they win the war, but the darkest side of his nature is seen when he takes special interest in Agu, inviting him into his bed as he has his other favorite boy, a mute named Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye). "Everyone betrays you in the end," the increasingly desperate Elba warns Agu, after he has committed himself and his battalion into mutiny against the NDF. By the time the exhausted and disillusioned battalion abandons Elba and surrenders to UN forces, Agu has seen and participated in countless horrors and suffers from untreated PTSD. In spite of the harrowing and appalling ordeals Agu endures, Fukunaga, who incredibly wrote, directed and shot Beasts of No Nation in Kenya, ends on a hopeful note. Beasts of No Nations opens with the sounds of happy children playing and by its end, that sound never seemed so sweet and earned.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Paper Towns



"Everyone gets a miracle," Quentin (Nat Wolff), the young hero of Paper Towns muses. In his case, his miracle was getting far the hell away from Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). Adapted from John Green's young adult novel, but less successfully than last year's moneymaking tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns follows the earnest romantic feelings Quentin has towards Margo Roth Spiegelman, or MRS, as she likes to sign things. They became next door neighbors when they were very young, and Quentin has loved her ever since, even after they grew apart as teenagers. He is a good, unadventurous student on track to becoming a doctor, a life plan which Margo Roth Spiegelman scoffed at to his face, calling it the "saddest thing [she's] ever heard." She grew into her high school's fabled, most desirable wild child, the stuff of legend and endless gossip. But she is awful.

After years of ignoring him, Margo Roth Spiegelman climbs through Quentin's bedroom window out of the blue and enlists his aid in a night of breaking and entering and vandalism, mainly because she "needs a getaway driver." She's out for revenge against her ex-boyfriend and other friends who wronged her. "We rain fire on our enemies," she proudly declares. Quentin, dazzled by her sudden attention, doesn't register that she is a sociopath. Together, they spend a long Orlando night commiting a few outright criminal acts, of which there are absolutely zero consequences. Quentin believes they've bonded again at long last. What else could it mean that they touched paint-stained index fingers like E.T. and Eliott? The next day, she ups and disappears. What happened to her? Who cares. Good riddance.

It is when Margo Roth Spiegelman vanishes that Paper Towns actually gets interesting. Quentin, however, believes himself in love and charged with a secret mission by Margo Roth Spiegelman to come and find her. Turning to a junior detective, Quentin enlists his two teenage chums, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), to decipher the "clues" Margo Roth Spiegelman has left behind. The friendship between the three bros, all nerds, two of whom looking forward to senior prom and possessing healthy teenage desires towards the girls at their school who aren't criminals, is believable and realistic. They even befriend Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo Roth Spiegelman's best friend and a genuinely nice person, who doesn't understand the scorn Margo Roth Spiegelman had for her before vanishing.

When Quentin figures out the secret meaning behind what "Paper Towns" are, the group of friends, along with Radar's girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), decide to road trip to upstate New York to find Margo Roth Spiegelman. It's a fool's errand, which everyone except Quentin comes to understand after arriving at their destination with no Margo Roth Spiegelman to be found. Which is for the best, as they make returning to Orlando for the senior prom their correct priority. All except Quentin, who stays behind in the paper town to finally reunite with Margo Roth Spiegelman and come to the realization that she's the Paper Town. To its credit, Paper Towns does have its head on straight that Margo Roth Spiegelman is no dream girl, and Quentin's intended life path sans who he thought was the love of his life is the correct one after all. So all's well that ends well for Quentin. As for the dangerous, unstable Margo Roth Spiegelman, she's on her proper path: a one way trip to Belle Reve Prison and a date with the Suicide Squad.