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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bumblebee

BUMBLEBEE

** SPOILERS **

Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) loves her car and that's the beating heart of Travis Knight's Bumblebee, the best live-action Transformers movie and the first to contain depth, sincerity, and is a palpable joy to watch. Like its titular Autobot, Bumblebee is smaller in scale than the other Transformers movies but is also more detailed and heartfelt. And (this is important), unlike Michael Bay's five previous clanking, chaotic cacophonies, watching Bumblebee doesn't feel like you're being punished by being repeatedly smacked in the face with a bag of hammers while rusty nails poke at your eye sockets. It only took 11 years and 6 Transformers movies to get this franchise to roll out in a positive direction, but let's never, ever go back.

Bumblebee succeeds in part by going back; it's a retro-1980s film (the era which was the heyday of Transformers Generation-1) and it's a reboot of Michael Bay's films (sort of). Borrowing heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant - with reverential nods to and the pacing of a Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Joe Johnston film sprinkled with some John Hughes - Bumblebee is drenched in nostalgia for a simpler time. The film may be a bit too aggressively '80s, especially with its wall-to-wall soundtrack, but the songs are well-chosen ("You're listening to The Smiths!"), and there's a clever in-joke where it turns out we owe the Decepticons for the gift of the Internet.

This 6th Transformers movie also blows up the continuity of the previous 5 (though, to be fair, nearly every Michael Bay sequel rewrote the history of his previous films). The movie opens on Cybertron (looking just like a kid in the '80s dreamed it would look like and not like what Bay presented) where the Decepticons have conquered the planet (without Megatron, who is never mentioned). Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) orders an evacuation and sends his favorite soldier B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth, a sanctuary he must protect until the rest of the Autobot Resistance can join him. Naturally, the Decepticons follow B to Earth, where they meet Sector-7 Agent Burns (John Cena, who is simply great in this role), a true-blue soldier who doesn't trust robot aliens and has a score to settle with them. However, Sector-7 is seduced by the technology and weaponry the Decepticons offer. Believing the evil robots' lies, the humans decide to work with them to find the "criminal" B-127, despite Burns accurately pointing out the name "Decepticons" should raise a red flag.

Meanwhile, the real story of Bumblebee begins when the damaged Autobot (missing his vocal software) meets Charlie, an 18-year-old girl mourning her dead father and desperately seeking a friend she can confide in. Not unlike John Connor in Terminator 2 finding his father figure in a T-800, Charlie finds her friend in a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Beetle that immediately transforms into a giant robot. Childlike and frightened thanks to his malfunctioning memory core, Bee is endearingly vulnerable and Charlie falls for her car right away. She names him "Bumblebee" and it's Charlie who inspires Bee to learn to use the radio to "talk", a trick he would use to communicate in all of Bay's films set 20+ years in the future (which may or may not happen now).

The bulk of Bumblebee is Charlie getting to know Bee, repairing him, and teaching him to assimilate on Earth while warning him that humans will try to dismantle and destroy him. There's a sequence where Bumblebee enters Charlie's house to explore it and accidentally wrecks everything and then a second where a failed attempt at toilet papering a mean girl's house sees Bee demolish her car that feels like a level up from when the Autobots were 'hiding' in the backyard of Sam Witwicky's house in Bay's 2007 Transformers. But the chemistry between Charlie and Bumblebee is palpable, made all the more remarkable by how immensely talented Hailee Steinfeld is; considering she's acting opposite CGI or a prop or nothing at all, Steinfeld makes you believe Bee is real. The movie adds a helpful third wheel in Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), the boy next door who would very much like to date Charlie, and the three have fun adventures driving around the Northern California coast, with Bumblebee playing Stan Bush's "The Touch" from Transformers: The Movie on the radio to really work the feels for the 80's kids in the audience.

Inevitably, the war between the Autobots and Decepticons comes to Earth and, like E.T., Bumblebee is captured and tortured before Charlie and Memo can save him. Once he's rebooted, Bumblebee remembers he's really, really good at killing Decepticons, and his battles against Triple-Changers Blitzwing (David Sobolov), Shatter (Angela Bassett), and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) are exciting because the Generation-1 designs allow you to see them as robots and not just a collection of shards and gears, therefore, you can tell what's going on when they move and fight. Together, Charlie and Bumblebee save the world, while Agent Burns comes to understand the yellow Volkswagen is on our side. 

In the end, Charlie chooses to part with Bumblebee in a climax as emotionally touching as it is baffling. The film establishes how Bumblebee changes shape into a Camaro (to Charlie's chagrin), which seems to set up how he'll meet Shia LaBeouf in Bernie Mac's used car lot 20 years later - yet the continuity has been completely altered because Optimus Prime and the Autobots immediately join Bumblebee on Earth in 1987 when Transformers establishes they don't arrive until 2007. Regardless, while it's clunky in sections and seems made up of spare parts from previous 1980s classics, Bumblebee is a win for everyone involved and for the entire Transformers franchise, which now has an open road to make better movies like this going forward (hopefully with Steinfeld returning). 

The best thing about Transformers 2007 was the heart of it was a story about a boy and his car, but Bumblebee tops it with its 1987 story of a girl and her car - the film truly understands and reaffirms the mystical bond between woman and machine. Bumblebee is the really the first Transformers movie aimed at girls, and dads, bring your daughters to see it. They may come out of Bumblebee wanting a car, but they'll also learn to love their car.


Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

** SPOILERS **

"All right, let's do this again..." Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse says repeatedly as a clever in-joke as it introduces every version of Spider-Man in the film, and we're glad they did do it - again. The 7th Spider-Man movie, the first animated theatrical Spider-Man movie, and the first Spider-Man movie featuring Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), Gwen Stacy/Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), and Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Into the Spider-Verse is a vivid, electric, and loving examination of all of Spider-Man's tropes, reaffirming why the amazing wall-crawler (any version of him) is the best superhero of all. 

With Spider-Verse, Sony Pictures ImageWorks outdid themselves with absolutely stunning, immersive, and gorgeous animation that turns Spider-Verse into a living comic book (in a way Ang Lee only dreamed of and failed at when he tried something similar with his 2003 Hulk). Just as Pixar's animation was revolutionary and set a new standard for a generation in the 1990s, Sony ImageWorks' animation for Spider-Verse is a dizzingly high new bar that every other studio will be racing to climb up the walls to match. Spider-Verse makes the colorful, melodramatic, and hilarious world of Spider-Man explode onto the screen, presenting an experience unmatched even by the live-action films, while still delivering all the heartfelt emotion and pathos of a proper Spider-Man story.

In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is just an ordinary kid from Brooklyn who feels he doesn't measure up to his cop father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) or his cooler uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Aaron is secretly a supervillain called the Prowler who works for the Kingpin of Crime (Liev Schreiber), and the Kingpin has built a super-collider underneath the city. He plans to use it to breach other dimensions in order to bring back a version of his dead wife Vanessa and son Richard. Instead, Kingpin inadvertently transports a handful of alternate universe Spider-People into his world, who naturally team up with Miles to stop him.

Miles discovers all this as he watches the death of Peter Parker (Chris Pine), who has been Spider-Man in this universe for 10 years and was the most wildly successful version ever (until he died). This Peter Parker was happily married to Mary Jane Watson (Zoe Kravitz), has a badass Aunt May (Lily Tomlin), a Spider-Cave with Spider-Gadgets and an entire wardrobe of Spider-Costumes. It's an ultra-confident, maximum swagger version of Spider-Man we've never quite seen before, which is why it's all the more crushing for Miles (and us) when this Peter, who wanted to be his mentor, heroically died. Instead, Miles gets a different mentor, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a 38-year-old down-on-his-luck Spider-Man who's out of shape, pining for his ex-wife Mary Jane, and is well past his Spider-Prime. But any port in a Spider-Storm and together, Peter and Miles investigate the Kingpin's company, running afoul of a new, female Doctor Octopus (Kathryn Hahn). 

Of course, the Spider-Men get in trouble and are in over their heads. Luckily, the other Spider-People from the Spider-Verse come to the rescue; along with Spider-Gwen (who was posing as Miles classmate at Brooklyn Visions High School) and Spider-Ham, there's Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime version of Spider-Woman with a Spider-Robot, and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), the brooding, tormented 1930s version of Spider-Man who is perpetually in black and white and is baffled by the mysterious Rubik's Cube. Together, they take on the Kingpin and his arch villains - but, at first, without Miles, who lacks the self-confidence to become what he is meant to be: the Ultimate Spider-Man.

Eventually, Miles Spider-Mans up and adopts his super cool black and red costume, but not without hilarious spins on the training we've seen Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland go through, like Miles chickening out of his first time leaping across rooftops. Into the Spider-Verse is Miles' coming-of-age story, and by the end, when he heroically gets the other Spiders to their proper dimensions and stops Kingpin himself, we are won over when he has truly earned the mantle of Spider-Man. (Even if Officer Davis is confused when the new Spider-Man hugs him tightly and tells him he loves him). 

Thwipping with dynamite in-jokes, Easter eggs, and clever cameos (along with the late Stan Lee's apperarance, Spider-Man 2099's post-credits scene set in the 1967 cartoon is simply brilliant), Into The Spider-Verse reaffirms that with great power comes great responsibility, but what it does best is ignite the sheer power of inspiration the Amazing Spider-Man has over all of our imaginations. Stick around through the credits just to hear Chris Pine's Spider-Man sing the "Spider-Bells" Christmas carol.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Robin Hood (2018)

ROBIN HOOD

** SPOILERS ** 

Robin Hood is an origin story, but that's not really unusual. After all, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Sir Ridley Scott's Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe were also origin stories. However, this Robin Hood origin story is the first to establish that the main reason Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton) became Robin Hood is because he happened to have two hands. Robin Hood is also the first Robin Hood story where a bunch of his allies takes turns pulling arrows out of Robin's body. (He's fine, though. He's always fine after being shot with arrows.)

Anyway, the hand thing: after he was drafted (no, really, he gets a draft notice in the mail) to fight in the Third Crusade, Robin encountered a Saracen warrior named Azeem Yahya (Jamie Foxx). Their fight cost Yahya his left hand, but later, Robin (for some reason) decided to save Yahya's son from being executed. He failed, got kicked out of Arabia and sent back to Nottingham, but this noble act earned him Yahya's respect. It turns out Yahya's full name, loosely translated, is John Little, and he's got a plan, see. He's gonna use this rich white boy to steal all of the money the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) has been collecting to fund his war effort. John would do it himself, but he's only got one hand now, thanks to Robin, but that white boy has two hands so he can still shoot a bow and arrow. Therefore, Robin has to be the one to become the Hood and steal from the Sheriff of Nottingham.

You see, in this weird ass universe, the Sheriff is in league with the Catholic Church to pay for the Third Crusade - but they're also secretly in league with Arabia for... why, exactly, isn't clear. To make Nottingham great again, maybe. The Sheriff of Nottingham is very much the Sheriff of Nationalism and he likes to give paranoid, racist speeches about Arabians coming to take over Nottingham (England is never mentioned in this movie; there is only Nottingham, a 12th-century city with paved streets). Also, in this weird ass universe, swords apparently don't exist - everyone, from Robin Hood to the Sheriff's soldiers to the Arabian warriors uses bows and arrows, even in close quarter combat. And they say things like "report to your unit", "I want information on troop deployment", and "Thank you for your service."

Anyway, John Little trains Robin to be the fastest and bestest archer and a super thief, while Robin adopts his secret identity as Robin of Loxley. As Robin of Loxley, Robin pretends to be a callow rich guy who gets in good with the Sheriff to learn his evil plot. He doesn't actually have to pretend to be callow (it comes naturally), but pretending to like the Sheriff not only gets him an audience with the Catholic Church's evil Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham!) but the ruse also has the unfortunate side effect of the Sheriff telling Robin his own origin story of how the priests who raised him sodomized him repeatedly with a broomstick. Hence, the stick up his ass isn't just metaphorical. 

Anyway, John and Robin go on a bunch of missions to steal from the Sheriff and no one knows who this mysterious, masked Hood is, despite the fact that John and Robin scream "JOHN!" and "ROBIN!" to each other every time they make a frantic getaway. As for why Robin is doing any of this at all, well, he's doing it for a girl - Marian (Eve Hewson) - who promised she'd wait for him to come home from the war but started dating Will Scarlett (Jamie Dornan), a local rabble-rouser who worries a lot about his "political career", when false word came from the Holy Land that Robin of Loxley was dead. Marian eventually figures out Robin is the Hood and joins up with him on their last gambit to steal the Sheriff's money, but Will catches them snogging and decides to turn and join up with Cardinal F. Murray Abraham to become the new Sheriff. This sets up a sequel that will never happen.

Look, let's shoot straight: the movie is terrible. Taron Egerton plays the worst Robin Hood ever, a guy without a brain in his head who has no idea what he's doing or even why he's doing it. Jamie Foxx is the brains and the brawn of this whole operation, and it's nice to see Paul Anderson (Arthur from Peaky Blinders) as Guy of Gisborne, but the plot is a bewildering mess broken up by a bewildering chase scene every time Robin dons the hood, and they never even make it to Sherwood Forest. Now, I haven't seen every Robin Hood movie but I've seen enough of them, and this Robin Hood movie is the first time I've ever wanted Robin Hood to die in a Robin Hood movie.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Creed II

CREED II

** SPOILERS **

When Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) arrives in the new LA home of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) to train him in his rematch against the hulking Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the following exchange occurs:

Rocky: "Your natural style just won't work with a guy that big."
Adonis: "What, you saying your's is better?"
Rocky: "I won, didn't I?"

He sure did. Creed II is not only a sequel to the 2015 film that reinvigorated the Rocky franchise, but it's also an amalgam of Rocky II, III, and IV. Co-written by Stallone, Creed II melds the major beats of those Rocky sequels all in one film: Three years since being publicly revealed as the son of the late Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, whose ghost looms large in Adonis' life), Adonis becomes the heavyweight champion of the world, just like his old man and his mentor Rocky. This happens at the start of the film so that Creed II can segue into becoming a sequel to Rocky IV: halfway around the world, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, delivering a career-best performance) has been training his own son Viktor as a prizefighter. Drago is nursing 33 years of hurt after losing the pivotal fight to Rocky in 1985 - his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) left him and their young son, and his name has been scorned in his country for decades. The son of Apollo Creed vs the son of Ivan Drago is a marquee narrative, but Rocky has been through this already and wants no part of this sequel.

Without Rocky to train him, Adonis flies off the handle more than once and is utterly humiliated by Viktor. Only a technicality kept Drago from winning the title, but he hospitalizes Adonis and shatters his spirit, just when he and his pop star fiancee Bianca (Tessa Thompson) are about to have a baby (not unlike how Rocky and Adrian had their son in Rocky II). Without his self-confidence, Adonis flails around and lashes out in anger, not unlike how Rocky lost the "Eye of the Tiger" after Mickey (Burgess Meredith) died and he was humiliated by Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in Rocky III. But the Dragos won't go away and the rematch looms. Finally, Rocky returns to Adonis' life and trains him - in the California desert this time instead of Siberia - for Adonis' rematch with Viktor in Russia. The Rocky IV redux goes a little differently; though Adonis does prevail, a neat detail is how Rocky adhering to Apollo's wishes and not stopping the fight comes full-circle when Ivan is forced to make the same choice to save his son in the ring.

Creed II is filled with thrilling, insightful character work and moments of extraordinary power. Finally, Adonis emerges as his own man - not the charming gabber Apollo was but not a carbon copy of Rocky in the ring either - and the film thoroughly explores Adonis' psyche, a challenge Jordan rises to. The best characters, however, are the Dragos, and we wish there was just a bit more of them in the film, which does delve into how Ivan raised Viktor in the shadow of his greatest failure. For Rocky IV fans, the scene where Ivan appears in Rocky's restaurant is like the Rocky version of the DeNiro/Pacino diner scene in Heat. Creed II also wraps up all of the franchise's lingering plot threads; nearly every living character makes an appearance and Rocky not only beats the cancer he was diagnosed with in the first Creed, but he reunites with his estranged son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) and meets his young grandson Logan. 

The biggest hit against Creed II is its length and pacing. As remarkable as the moments are, the first half of the picture is glacially paced, and the final film (which has a strangely muted sound design) feels listless until the third act and the final fight with Viktor. It's also a shame that Adonis isn't the great communicator his father was, and that after two Creed films, he still doesn't have his own iconic theme music, relying instead on Rocky's familiar score to punch up the emotions. But again, there are aspects of Creed II that are jaw-droppingly good, such as Adonis' ring entrance during his rematch with Viktor where Bianca defiantly sings him into the ring in front of a partisan Russian crowd. 

When Adonis' baby is born, Rocky has a brief chat with Apollo's widow Mary Anne. Rocky tells her, "I'm gonna do what I can", to which she replies, "Your being here is enough." This exchange is like a meta-commentary for Stallone's continued involvement in the whole Rocky/Creed franchise. Now that nearly every sequel has been homaged, the question is where does Creed go from here? (Hopefully not copying Rocky V.) Rocky remains a pivotal part of the Creed films - he's still arguably the most important character - but by the end of Creed II we begin to see that maybe there can be one more round without Rocky Balboa in Adonis' corner. Hopefully, Rocky and Stallone go the distance with any further sequels, but should Adonis ultimately lose Rocky, Creed II gives the impression the franchise could withstand even that potential knockout blow and keep moving forward.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Ronda Rousey's Survivor Series Performance Was One For The Ages

RONDA ROUSEY'S SURVIVOR SERIES PERFORMANCE WAS ONE FOR THE AGES


I've watched the fight between Ronda Rousey and Charlotte Flair at Survivor Series three times. The match is incredible. To me, it's the WWE Match of the Year, and more importantly, with Charlotte's help (it takes two to tango in wrestling), Survivor Series marked Ronda's true WWE baptism of fire. I believe it's the match that truly made the former UFC Bantamweight Champion a pro-wrestler, but not just any wrestler. Survivor Series proved Ronda Rousey is among the most elite performers in WWE. Not because she won the match, which she only did by disqualification, but because in the grand scheme of things, she failed - but in failure, her character evolved.

In front of a partisan crowd at Staples Center in LA, Rousey, the undefeated RAW Women's Champion, faced Smackdown Live's Charlotte Flair in a match for bragging rights. The crowd was against Ronda, but they weren't necessarily pro-Charlotte as much as they were united in support for the injured Becky Lynch. The Smackdown Women's Champion was supposed to be Ronda's opponent after weeks of incredible hype (much of it innovated by Ronda on social media) but Becky had to bow out of this Super Fight due to injury. They'll face each other down the road (maybe even headline WrestleMania) but Charlotte Flair - another dream match for Ronda - was the best possible substitute. Still, Becky's specter loomed over the match, thanks to the fans at Staples Center who treated Ronda as the villain and Becky's proxy Charlotte as if "The Queen" were "The Man" herself.

It also felt like the storyline at Survivor Series was meant for Becky but was given to Charlotte virtually unchanged. The match seemed designed to present the two Women's Champions as equals but Becky/Charlotte grows desperate in her inability to beat Ronda and resorts to weapons and violence, cementing her as the villain (albeit one the crowd will lustily cheer for). Essentially, this is exactly what happened: Ronda and Charlotte fought a relentless and brutal war of attrition. Ronda bled from the mouth early, seemingly from being driven face-first into the bottom turnbuckle. After promising on Instagram to make Charlotte bleed, it was Ronda who gushed blood for the entire duration. And despite Ronda destroying Alexa Bliss to win the RAW Women's Title at Summerslam, in Charlotte, she faced an opponent who was bigger, arguably stronger, but definitely possessed more big match experience and victories than anyone in the Women's locker room (including Becky). 

The match was mesmerizing, intense, nuanced, yet barbaric in a way nothing else at Survivor Series was, nor has there been anything quite as violent from the WWE Women's division before. Ronda wasn't a destroyer; she was in trouble and fighting from underneath for most of the match. Try as she might, Ronda couldn't overpower Charlotte or make her submit but alternately, Charlotte also couldn't put Ronda away. But still, it was clear Charlotte was punishing Ronda and pushing her to her absolute physical limits, forcing Ronda to dig deep and move beyond them. Finally, Charlotte 'snapped' and annihilated Rousey, breaking a kendo stick over her body with multiple strikes and then savaging Ronda with a steel chair. Even in her real-life losses in the octagon, Ronda has never looked so helpless and vulnerable. She won by DQ, but it was an unhinged Charlotte who stood over the vanquished "Baddest Woman on the Planet". Ronda walked out of the ring under her own power, but the scars, bruises, and welts all over her body, as well as the anguish on her face, told the real story of the night. 

Ronda wasn't carried off on her shield, but she was humiliated in a WWE ring for the first time. Her patina of invincibility was shattered by a beating unlike any she'd ever endured before. Worse, the pro-Becky crowd mocked her, booed her, and chanted "You deserved it!" (She didn't.) And now that she has survived this unique kind of WWE hell, Ronda Rousey really gets interesting.


For WWE, Ronda Rousey is a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition who, in less than a year, has paid off beyond their wildest dreams. Her peers Kurt Angle came from the Olympics, Ken Shamrock came from MMA, Brock Lesnar came from amateur wrestling (and jumped to UFC), and The Rock is a third generation star. All of them brilliantly picked up the professional wrestling business like Ronda has, but none of them (except maybe Angle) walked into WWE with the baggage of being one of the most famous athletes in the world like Ronda. Any doubts that Rousey could hang in WWE were dispelled by her wildly entertaining performance at WrestleMania against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. But in her singles career - one that would bring her the RAW Women's Title and the position of leadership of the women's division sooner than many fans would have liked - Ronda was good on her word: she promised she wouldn't just be a 'special attraction'. She promised she would be on RAW weekly and work the house show tours like everyone else - and she has. She's not cashing in on a multi-million-dollar contract and trading on her fame; she is a full-time member of the roster who is serious about her WWE career. Survivor Series proved once and for all how serious Ronda is.

Ronda is also a fascinating wrestler who is unlike anyone else in WWE. Her reputation as "The Baddest Woman on the Planet" always precedes her and her aura is that she's invincible, but she is still undeniably new at pro wrestling. However, she has taken to WWE like a duck to water. It's not merely that she can execute moves like spinning Samoan drops and hurricaranas; Ronda gets the little things, the in-between things that make a match captivating and fun to watch. Nobody 'sells' like her; it's always amazing to see when she's hurt and vulnerable during a match, and her talent for this made her Survivor Series match off-the-charts suspenseful. As proficient as Rousey is already (and remember - she's a rookie with only a few dozen matches and a handful of PPV matches performed at the highest level), the fact that she still feels raw and unpolished only makes her more compelling as a performer. Everything she does feels genuine, and she brings enrapturing emotion in spades. 

Which makes what happened at Survivor Series all the more remarkable: Ronda still hasn't been beaten and the way the story with Charlotte went, in a purely physical contest, maybe Ronda can't be beaten (yet?). But her newness to WWE and the impression that Ronda always expects a fair match lets heels like Charlotte use the WWE system of anything goes against her. It's still novel and mind-blowing to see Ronda Rousey get absolutely destroyed with pro-wrestling staples like steel chairs and kendo sticks. And please shut your traps about the whole 'pro-wrestling isn't real' garbage; the blood and bruises all over Ronda's body after Survivor Series tell the real story about how real WWE can get. Meanwhile, she may still be a rookie but Ronda is quickly making up for lost time - that thrashing she took at Survivor Series packed a ten-year career of pro-wrestling beatdowns into one match.


What happens next will be the real story for Ronda Rousey that demands watching. She's still the RAW Women's Champion but she's tasted failure and has been embarrassed on a global stage. She has a brand new arch enemy in Charlotte Flair, but she still needs to have her showdown with Becky Lynch (where the fans will again treat her as the villain), and she has the dangerous obstacle of Nia Jax (the first woman in WWE to physically manhandle her) coming for her RAW Women's Title. But her failure at Survivor Series is key - someone who can't be beaten isn't interesting. That's what makes WWE fascinating, everyone from The Undertaker to The Rock to Stone Cold Steve Austin to Ric Flair to Shawn Michaels to Brock Lesnar to Triple H to John Cena fails. All of them have suffered devastating losses in their careers that only made their rising up in triumph more meaningful. Ronda Rousey joins that elite list; she lost one war but there will inevitably another war to fight. What this means is, she's a pro-wrestler.

Most importantly, at Survivor Series, we saw Ronda's heart, her commitment to delivering above and beyond even the high level expected of her, and what kind of a performer she really is and is capable of being. It's evident Ronda Rousey isn't in WWE merely for money or for fame (she could continue acting in Hollywood blockbusters for more money and none of the danger); she is putting her body on the line in WWE because she must really love this business, just as the fans do. Her ordeal at Survivor Series only added new dimensions to Ronda Rousey's legend. The "Baddest Woman on the Planet" walked out of Survivor Series with a technical win and a moral defeat, but in the grand scheme of WWE, Ronda Rousey has absolutely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt she's best for business.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Outlaw King

OUTLAW KING

** SPOILERS **

Outlaw King is a lot like Braveheart but is missing Braveheart's gross historical inaccuracies. It's also missing that thing Braveheart had that enraptures your emotions, that rousing, uplifting feeling it gives you while William Wallace is being drawn, quartered, and dismembered - but still urging "FREEEDOOOOMMM!!!" Speaking of William Wallace and his members, parts of him do make a cameo in Outlaw King. His severed arm makes an early and pivotal appearance in the first act, which incites the Scottish people to riot against England once again, and in turn makes Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) decide maybe he should press his claim to become King of Scots, after all, never mind the fealty he swore to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). William Wallace's severed head (but not Mel Gibson's) also appears; it's mounted on a pike at London Bridge. Good to see you, old friend!

Essentially, Outlaw King is about the end of Mel Gibson's narration that closed out Braveheart: "They fought like warrior-poets... and won their freedom." Except Outlaw King isn't quite as rosy; Robert the Bruce's rise to lead Scotland begins with cold-blooded mur-diddly-urder when he kills the guy who also has claim to the Scottish throne, John Comyn (Callan Mulvey). In the Bruce's defense, Comyn was totally gonna rat Robert out to Edward. From there, Robert becomes King of Scots and everything works out for him, except for the humiliating defeats he suffers in battle, how his army is ambushed in the middle of the night and again as they flee, and how his brothers are executed and his wife Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) and daughter Marjorie are imprisoned in England. But all of that just means Robert the Bruce can mount a brave, heroic comeback and emerge victorious in the end.

As King Edward, Dillane isn't as ostentatiously evil as Patrick McGoohan was when he played "King Longshanks" in Braveheart, but he sure does love Greek fire (almost as much as Stannis Baratheon liked wildfire). The ostentatious evil is delivered by his son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a scheming weakling who fancies himself a military strongman and ruthless conqueror. The Prince of Wales seems to only exist because he wants to duel Robert the Bruce; after their opening act 'friendly contest' is disrupted, Edward II finally gets his rematch at the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill. The Prince totally blows it and scuttles off in a pukey panic. Good times. 

As Robert, Pine is mournful and contemplative rather than dynamic. The real Bruce was said to be more of a politician and schemer, but Pine plays him as almost reluctant to do all the things he has to do to lead a united Scotland. As Elizabeth, Pugh is loyal, intelligent, and far more interesting, but she's relegated to a supporting role as she has no place on the battlefield. As James "The Black" Douglas, an almost-unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a powderkeg. The battle scenes are visceral and bloody but the film only sporadically feels epic. Returning to the unavoidable Braveheart comparison, thanks to Mel Gibson's Oscar-winning myth-making, William Wallace remains the grander movie presence. Outlaw King, while truer to history, still doesn't elevate Robert the Bruce to an equal stature.

For the history of what happened after Outlaw King's ending and how Scotland won their independence, I wrote about it at Screen Rant.

For that scene involving Chris Pine's pine cone, click here.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB: A NEW DRAGON TATTOO STORY

** SPOILERS **

The Girl in the Spider's Web would like to know: Have you seen David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? You have? Great. How well do you remember it? Not that well? Even better. A few more questions, if you wouldn't mind: Do you remember Skyfall? Yes, the James Bond one. You liked Skyfall? Good. What about Jason Bourne? Of course, you do. Excellent. Okay, before you go and watch the new movie, how much do you like bleak, colorless, snowy shots of Stockholm that invoke foreboding and dread? You're good with that. Well, terrific, that about wraps it up. You should have a pretty good time at Girl in the Spider's Web, then. Wait, one last question: You're not one of those 'critical' types who like to think too much about the movie you're watching, are you? Hmm, well, just try to enjoy it anyway. Okay, off you go. Roll the picture.

In Spider's Web, Claire Foy steps into the iconic (Sony hopes) role of Lisbeth Salander, taking over for Rooney Mara, who took over for Noomi Rapace in the Swedish-made Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Three Lisbeth Salanders in five movies in under ten years - even James Bond or Batman can't touch that recasting feat. Speaking of the Batman, that's essentially who this soft rebooted Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is when she's reintroduced in Spider's Web - she's Stockholm's silent guardian and watchful protector, specifically "the woman who hurts men who hurt women" (and in the late Steig Larsson's universe of books and films, Lisbeth is perpetually busy and business is always booming because Swedes are a nasty, abusive, misogynistic piece of work). 

'Implausible' is the word that comes to mind when watching The Girl in the Spider's Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story. Lisbeth was always a gifted hacker, driven, relentless, and not one for idle chitchat or human interaction (besides needing regular sex), but Spider's Web refashions her as a little Swedish Terminator. Now a full-fledged action hero who can ride her motorcycle across a frozen lake, Lisbeth takes multiple beatings and keeps on ticking. She's also apparently clairvoyant: her ability to, say, walk into a crowded airport, know where to leave luggage, and know the exact time airport security will pick it up and bring it to the back, which happens to be the same room as an imprisoned NSA hacker (LaKeith Stanfield) whose help she needs is waiting so that the cell phone she planted in the bag can cybernetically take over the security system and free Stanfield so that he'll walk by the exact garbage bin at the exact moment she calls him so he can be at her location two minutes later to punch out the cop who has her cornered holds up not at all to any logical dissection. But Lisbeth can do all of that. She knows how to control a bridge to raise it and thus escape from the bad guys pursuing her. She knows everything all the time. And if she's momentarily surprised, she's then instantly and suddenly five steps ahead of the people who just surprised her. 

To her credit, Foy is all-in as Salander and while this mostly involves her looking deer-in-headlights alarmed, she digs into Lisbeth's internal life to try to convey the complexity of this character - but it really helps if you've seen the other Dragon Tattoo film(s) to fill in the blanks as to why Lisbeth does anything she does - or  why she even cares. Instead of a dense, character piece like Fincher's film, the new movie is interested in propulsive, violent action above all else; it doles out backstory and subtext in a perfunctory manner, and this especially holds true for the villain of the story: Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks), the sister Lisbeth left behind to be raped and abused "for 16 years!" (so nice, she says it twice) by their crime lord father when she ran away from home. Hoeks was so charismatic and frightening as Luv, the evilest Replicant in Blade Runner 2049 - here, she provides what menace she can with what little she's given. 

This is where all the Skyfall comes into play. You remember Skyfall, right? Girl in the Spider's Web sure does! Skyfall made Sony a billion dollars - let's do it again! Like Bond and Silva (Javier Bardem), Lisbeth meets a twisted, evil version of herself who now runs a shadowy criminal organization bent on cyber terrorism - Camilla wants "Sky -" sorry, "Firefall", a program that allows an individual to control the world's nuclear arsenal. This whole sordid plot is deeply rooted in Lisbeth's origin and the violent, guns-blazing climax of Spider's Web even takes place at Skyfall - or rather, the dilapidated Salander family mansion - in the middle of winter, which Lisbeth makes sure is blown up by the end. If that doesn't hammer it home enough, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), Lisbeth's journalist ex-lover, even goes to meet with a guy to get info, and the guy peels off his nose to reveal he's missing parts of his face - just like Silva showed Bond when MI-6 captured him. It's enough to make you wonder why Adele isn't crooning Lisbeth Salander's theme.

Finally, let's talk about Mikael Blomkvist- why is he even in the movie? Dragon Tattoo was about Blomkvist and Lisbeth learning to work together and trust each other to uncover the sordid truth behind Harriet Vanger's disappearance. That film was an equal partnership. In Spider's Web, Blomkvist is wholly unnecessary - even the tiny thing Lisbeth asks him to investigate she could have easily done herself along with the dozen other implausible things she was handling solo. It's not even like this is the character Dragon Tattoo fans might remember - he isn't! He's Mikael Blomkvist in name only; he's now inexplicably younger than Daniel Craig's version, Gudnason barely has any scenes and no chemistry with Foy, and Blomkvist doesn't even publish the story about "The Girl in the Spider's Web" in his magazine Millennium. This is probably because there's no Mikhail Blomkvist in Skyfall, so the filmmakers really had nothing for him to copy in Spider's Web but they still felt they had to include him. One thing's for sure: the guy who will eventually replace Daniel Craig as James Bond won't be Sverrir Gudnason. (Or Lisbeth Salander for that matter - but they sure are trying.)

Friday, October 5, 2018

Venom

VENOM

** SPOILERS **

"You're a loser, Eddie," the black, goopy, alien symbiote calling himself Venom tells Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). And we agree. Then the symbiote adds, "On my planet, I'm a loser too." And we're like, "Huh? That's... weird." Then again, this is a movie where Eddie is placed in an MRI machine, which is torture to Venom, and the doctor asks "Eddie, are you okay? Are you okay, Eddie?" He's been hit by, he's been hit by a smooth symbiote.

In director Ruben Fleischer's Venom, weird works and that in and of itself is weird. Venom is a bizarro buddy comedy crossed with a superhero movie crossed with a body horror alien invasion movie. As Eddie Brock, Hardy plays a swarthy, unethical San Francisco TV journalist who betrays his lawyer fiancee Michelle Williams in order to humiliate and expose sinister billionaire Carleton Drake (Riz Ahmed), head of the sinister Life Foundation. Instead, Eddie is exposed, loses his job, his fiancee, and six months later, he becomes even more swarthy while basically remaining the same amount of unethical. And then, this down-and-out loser meets Venom, a down-and-out loser symbiote from outer space. It's the worst thing that ever happened to Eddie. Or the best? Not sure, jury's out. But let's see these two best buds make a go of it, shall we?

Eddie was right to suspect Carleton Drake, though. Drake is a little like Adrian Veidt in Watchmen; he's a very rich, smart man who has a terrible plan to save the world. Trouble is, Drake hates humanity, though we can kind of see his point; just like in Shane Black's The Predator, the real enemy in Venom is climate change. The Predator estimated the Earth was two generations away from becoming uninhabitable. Venom moves that timetable up to one generation and Drake puts all the blame for this squarely on people. But his solution to our extinction ain't great: his space shuttle (piloted by astronaut John Jameson, hero son of Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson), finds a comet containing alien life forms and brings four of the symbiotes back to Earth. One escaped during re-entry and crashed the ship in Malaysia. The Life Foundation recovers three of the symbiotes and brings them back to their labs right next to the Golden Gate Bridge. The fourth symbiote murders and body-snatches Malaysian women until it finds its way onto an airplane to SF. 

Meanwhile, Life Foundation scientist Jenny Slate (who did ADR so that she pronounces "symbiote" properly, unlike in the trailer) has serious ethical qualms about how her boss kidnaps homeless people and exposes them to the symbiotes. The aliens try to bond with the human guinea pigs but quickly eat up their organs and murder them. One of the vagrants killed is Melora Walters, who has fallen on really hard times in the 20 years since Magnolia. Slate betrays Drake by clueing Eddie Brock in on the murders happening at Life, but Eddie being Eddie, he goes where he shouldn't go and has a meet-cute with Venom. They end up bonding in all the worst ways. Or best ways? Not sure, jury's out.

Eddie-Venom is a new kind of Odd Couple. Their banter is the highlight of the movie and man, is it weird. Hardy performs as Eddie being possessed by Venom and he portrays Venom's voice, talking to him in his head and sometimes manifesting physically as a black, jacked-up, toothy-faced monster. And for a homicidal alien freakshow, Venom sure is sensitive. He gets upset every time Eddie refers to him as a "parasite" and the first time he climbs to the top of a skyscraper like Spider-Man and looks out over San Francisco Bay, he decides Earth isn't so terrible and wants to stay. Venom also wants to reunite Eddie with his ex-fiancee; the alien monster playing Dr. Phil, giving Eddie romantic advice, and urging him to apologize to her is the weirdest part of the movie. No wait, Eddie sitting in a lobster tank at a fancy restaurant and eating a live lobster is the weirdest part. No no, hang on, Venom possessing Michelle Williams' body, turning her into She-Venom, and then making out with Eddie as he oozes back into Eddie's body is the weirdest. 

Of course, the fourth symbiote makes it to San Francisco and bonds with Carleton Drake. It calls itself Riot, and that's weird too. So wait, their names were Venom and Riot before they came to Earth? Riot's plan is to fly a new Life Foundation spaceship back into space, fetch a bunch more symbiotes, and then come back to invade and conquer Earth. Venom decides this isn't a good deal for him or his new human friend so he and Eddie go off to stop Riot. The battle between two disgusting, monster-faced, alien goopballs is brief but gross, but fortunately for Earth, good(?) triumphs over evil and Eddie/Venom kill Carleton/Riot.

In the end, all's well that ends well. Eddie and Venom settle into their new relationship, somehow Eddie is a reporter again, he and Michelle Williams are cool again, and Venom gets to stay on Earth but he can only murder certain kinds of people. So, great? What about climate change, are we doing anything about that? Nah, that's not really Venom's problem, so it's fine. In the end, we walk out of Venom hoping E&V can make it together in this crazy old world. Venom is a good time superhero movie if you can get on board with the movie's Looney Tunes-logic and Tom Hardy's gonzo Jim Carrey-in-The Mask performance. But like Gretchen Weiners trying to make "fetch" happen, Venom makes a serious case for replacing "So bad, it's good" and making "So Venom, it's good" happen.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

How The Fist Has Turned

IRON FIST SEASON 2

 ** SPOILERS **

Iron Fist season 2 is one of the great Marvel comeback stories. It's the Marvel TV equivalent of how Thor: Ragnarok successfully reinvigorated the Thor franchise. There's really no need to rehash the problems with Iron Fist season 1, but the season 2 turnaround is simply remarkable for all the ways new showrunner M. Raven Metzner wildly improved the show he inherited. Season 2 accentuated the positives, eliminated all of the negatives and baggage (this is the really amazing part), and changed the paradigm of Iron Fist, which will in turn reverberate across the Netflix Marvel Universe. 

Most importantly, Iron Fist 2 was a great deal of fun that took a hard look at its characters, worked out how they think and feel, and then set them all on better paths (except maybe Joy. Poor Joy is in a bad spot, but that's what you get for being the bad guy). Here are the big hits Iron Fist 2 struck - the five fingers of the Fist, if you will - that really turned the entire franchise around:

The Ballad of Danny Rand. Season 2 considered the man at the heart of the series, Danny Rand himself, asked the hard questions about him and came to the proper conclusions: he's just not good enough. Yet. He could be, but he's not there. Kudos to Finn Jones (who was always better than the material he'd been previously given) for how he took on the challenge of actually taking a back seat as the lead of his own series. Danny loses the Iron Fist in episode 4 and incredibly, he doesn't get it back until the final moments of the season, in a denouement set 'months later.' 

Danny was a problem child who, at long last, chose to address his biggest problem - himself. He asked for help from the right people, he admitted his limitations, and he chose the harder path - to grow and better himself. It's not often in a superhero series that the hero realizes he's not the person he ought to be and surrenders his powers to someone who could use them better than he does. This was a bold choice and it felt very right.

Colleen Wing is the Immortal Iron Fist. What a fantastic switcheroo - one that the show really had the balls to follow through on! The truth is Colleen was always the better character. She is smarter, more worldly, more mature, knows herself, and it never made sense that she was second fiddle (and 'the girlfriend') to Danny Rand. Not that she wasn't a great girlfriend and partner, but Colleen could be a lot more. Amazingly, Iron Fist 2 came to that same logical conclusion and empowered Colleen as the co-lead of the series. She's now the Iron Fist, and she deserves to be. Colleen absolutely deserves to stand alongside the other Defenders as a marquee superhero.

What was incredibly rewarding about season 2 was how well the seeds of Colleen's ascension were planted throughout. She was the calm and rational one, the peacemaker in a room full of Triad bosses and Danny Rand, the trustworthy one who did the right things for the right reasons. The absolute best thing about season 2 was how they finally utilized Jessica Henwick to her utmost; of course, she played Colleen as a badass, but Henwick also got to smile, laugh, crack jokes, and even host a dinner party (maybe the best moment in the series) where Colleen cut right to the heart of the tension at the table. Colleen is the real hero NYC needs; she's the most balanced, intelligent, and least damaged Defender. With Colleen wielding the Iron Fist, the future looks as bright as her glowing hand and her katana.

The Daughters of the Dragon stole the show. Bringing in Misty Knight paid off dividends. Simone Missick is simply fantastic and Misty has grown into the unsung hero of the Marvel Netflix shows. She's the true adult in the room who brings credibility and heart to every moment she's in. The Daughters of the Dragon mini-show within Iron Fist 2 was one of the best things ever in a Marvel Netflix show; not only is it great to see two female heroes take on missions together, but they brought out the best in each other. Colleen and Misty are every bit as funny, cool, and effective together as you'd hoped. And, as they each pointed out, they don't even really know each other but they're each other's mutual best relationship. The Daughters of the Dragon delivered an amazing proof of concept for their own spinoff series and hopefully, they'll get it.

All the negatives eliminated. The season 2 writers room must have asked the right question - What was dragging Iron Fist down? - and then they made a list and systematically crossed the cons right out of the show. The Hand? Gone gone gone. No time was spent in Rand Enterprises dealing with boring corporate shenanigans. No resurrections of old villains like Madame Gao or Harold Meachum no one wanted to see again. And the bad fight scenes? Completely turned around. The action in season 2 was top-drawer, especially all the moments (like Colleen and Misty fighting the Crane Sisters in episode 6) where you could see the actors were really performing the fights. Jones, Henwick, Missick, Sacha Dhawan as Davos all committed fully to the action and the results are right there on the screen. 

Down Ward, Up Ward. I dunno about you, but Ward Meachum is my favorite character in this whole series, just slightly outpacing Colleen. This poor guy suffers from his own demons and falls off the wagon constantly, but he's trying, man. No matter in what bad way Ward finds himself in, Tom Pelphrey plays him with a twinkle in his eye where you root for him and hope Ward somehow pulls it together. Just as entertaining as the Daughters of the Dragon are, Pelphrey and Finn Jones are magical in their many scenes together. They're brothers who both know they're just not quite good enough for the spots they found themselves in, but they take solace in each other with wry in-jokes and oddly touching personal revelations. For their part, Jessica Stroup had a bit more of a thankless task as a villain but never lost touch with the humanity in Joy Meachum, while Alice Eve created an intriguingly complex villain in Mary Walker, who is poised to reveal even more layers to herself.

Even at a shortened 10 episodes, the season still felt a bit too long for the story they were telling and maybe could have best been consolidated into 8 episodes, but despite that and a few other minor issues, Iron Fist 2 is a win, pure and simple. It's a remarkable feeling to walk away from Iron Fist dying to see more. 

Where's the place to be in Marvel NYC? Harlem? Hell's Kitchen? Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.


Friday, August 24, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

** SPOILERS **

The reactions of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and her best friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) in the photo above are apt for Crazy Rich Asians. Directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the bestseller by Kevin Kwan, the first Hollywood film in 25 years starring an all-Asian cast is an exuberant, funny, insightful, and eye-popping look at how the rest of the world lives. By rest of the world, I mean the insanely wealthy Chinese who practically own all of Singapore. Addressing themes of family, identity, self-worth, and tons of romance set in the luxurious backdrop of South Asia, Crazy Rich Asians is a stunning and joyous crowd-pleaser that is dominated by lovely performances by an outstanding cast, especially all of the women in the film, and earns its multitude of fireworks popping throughout.

The plot is simple: Rachel, an NYC-based Chinese American economics professor, is invited by her handsome and dashing boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to be his date to his best friend's wedding in Singapore. Rachel would, of course, have to meet Nick's family. Nick is like the Bruce Wayne of Singapore - his every movement is tracked on social media by a cadre of female admirers - and like Mr. Wayne, Nick has been keeping a secret. He doesn't run around in a Batsuit at night, but he is fabulously wealthy. Nick is a bit suspect in his behavior throughout the film; he likes keeping things from Rachel (like his plan to propose to her), and he claims he wants nothing to do with being the Golden Child and heir to his family's vast fortune, but it's not that simple. Nick is very much devoted to his stern mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and even more so to his grandmother (Lisa Lu), the matriarch and true power behind the family. Still, for every questionable decision Nick makes, the film bends over backward to reaffirm that he's really a good man and his heart and devotion to Rachel are true.

For Rachel, the trip has highs and lows. Anyone's jaw would drop at the sprawling mansions, exotic island getaways, and limitless food and privilege she's exposed to, but all of that comes at a price: most of the crazy rich Asians Nick grew up with are, unsurprisingly, total assholes. There are some exceptions: Nick's gorgeous cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is elegant and kind but stuck in a bad marriage, and the couple about to wed, Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonoya Mizono), are lovely people inside and out. Still, Rachel is subjected to hazing and treated like an outcast for being a crazy not-rich Asian who has the gall to be dating Nick Young. Luckily, Rachel has her friend Goh to take solace with. Goh may not be crazy rich, but her weird-ass family (her father is played by Ken Jeong in total Asian clown mode) is still rich enough to take Rachel on a Pretty Woman-inspired shopping spree to find a dress suitable for the wedding. And what a wedding it is; an opulent, mermaid-inspired affair that may well be the most magical nuptials ever captured on film.

The wedding isn't so great for Rachel, though. Eleanor's obvious disapproval leads her to investigate Rachel's family and reveals some buried secrets about her mother and her past. The film seems to set up a fitting breakup between Nick and Rachel, with Rachel scoring her important moral victory by getting one over on Eleanor. That should have been enough and would have been a nice, bittersweet ending, but Crazy Rich Asians isn't in the market for bittersweet. Instead, Nick rises to the occasion and makes a final romantic bid to marry Rachel. It doesn't quite jive with the way Rachel asserted herself and her self-worth in the third act, but this is a Hollywood romantic comedy and there was plenty of money left in the fireworks budget, so we are delighted to put our quibbles aside to see Rachel and Nick get their happy ending and become Crazy Rich Man and Wife. Rachel probably should have asked for a little space to think things through, but fuck it, let's all leave the theater feeling good, why not? Rachel does marry into Nick's incredible wealth, but she learns the real treasure are the Crazy Rich Asians we met along the way.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Meg

THE MEG

** SPOILERS **

The Meg is 33% decent and 67% shameless and, for a Jason Statham vs a giant shark movie, these turn out to be surprisingly winning statistics. This is a film where the actors take on everything with total earnestness while the screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber and the direction by Jon Turteltaub throw in things like a tiny dog swimming in the middle of the ocean and coming face to face with a giant shark and a Chinese woman yelling "Pa! Pa!" whom they felt the need to subtitle "Dad! Dad!" The finale of The Meg is like Crazy Rich Asians at the beach, except dozens of them are being ripped apart by a Megalodon. Also, soldiers sent to kill the Meg with dynamite can't tell the difference between a shark and a whale. This is that kind of movie. But for a 2018 summer film about a prehistoric beast, it's way more ridiculously entertaining than Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Bite me.

And yet, the actors 100% believe nothing happening is ridiculous, which helps a whole lot. Jason Statham is a deep-sea rescue diver who unwittingly encountered the Meg five years prior. When an attempt to explore the Marianas Trench deep, deep in the ocean unwittingly reveals the existence of a Megalodon shark, long thought extinct, Statham is brought back to rescue his ex-wife Jessica McNamee, who is in command of the lost sub. Statham saves the day but the rescue ends up unleashing the Megalodon, which swims up to the surface and decides all of these humans on the deep sea research station owned by skeezy billionaire Rainn Wilson are its mortal enemies. 

Statham and the multinational cadre of actors like Li Bingbing (whom he has the hots for and vice versa), Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, and Page Kennedy, declare war on the Meg right back. Off they go a-huntin' for the giant shark, only to find out there's a second, even bigger Meg! "Nobody said there were two of them!" Kennedy yells, echoing the audience's thoughts at the movie's marketing. Despite their best efforts, the Meg(s) destroy every single boat the humans are on, their shark cages, most of their submarines, and the sharks ruin a fun beach holiday off the coast of China to boot. 

The Megs themselves are not sharks to remember. They're drab, brownish, CGI monstrosities that lack the presence and character of Spielberg's shark in Jaws. But no matter. This is a movie where Statham pilots a one-man sub against the Meg and then goes into hand-to-hand combat with it for good measure. But while Statham's gruff, macho skills are put to the test against the sharks, the real action is between him and Li. Sparks fly between the two, and her 8-year-old daughter Shuya Sophia Cai is all for her mommy moving on with this heroic, macho, bald Englishman with the magic lips that resuscitated her when she drowned. We end up rooting for them to get together as much as we root for them to beat the Meg. In the end, we're glad they all end up chums.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT

** SPOILERS **

"Hope is not a strategy," August Walker (Henry Cavill) says to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) quips back, "You must be new." Indeed, if you think about it, we never really see Ethan Hunt eat or drink, so he must be fueled purely by hope as he does impossible things to save the world.

In the relentlessly entertaining Mission: Impossible - Fallout (the 6th Mission in 22 years), Ethan is pushed to his absolute limits as he and the IMF, consisting of the hilarious Benji (Simon Pegg) and the ever-loyal Luther (Ving Rhames) - race around the world to stop two nuclear weapons from killing millions of innocent people. The genius of Fallout, directed once more by Christopher McQuarrie, is in how all of the dangers the IMF has ever faced has been balled up into the personal guilt of Ethan Hunt. He's responsible for all of us, and he knows it. "I'll figure it out!" is Ethan's response every time the IMF asks him what to do, though by then, Ethan has already taken off to perform some type of aerobatic insanity. Bless him, Ethan will go to absolutely any lengths to save us, because that's simply what Ethan Hunt does.

The last three Missions have been a more tightly-woven narrative than the original trilogy from 1996-2006. 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol introduced the Syndicate, a rogue nation of former government operatives led by an anarchist named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Ethan and the IMF captured Lane in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, but two years later, the remnants of the Syndicate have reorganized into a new terrorist network called the Apostles. They want their old leader back and they'll detonate three nukes to get him. Of course, the IMF mobilizes to stop them, this time led by Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Hunley was the IMF's greatest critic until he saw Ethan in action in Rogue Nation; like anyone who gets to see what Ethan Hunt can do, Hunley was instantly converted. Indeed, Hunley delivered an astonishing pro-Ethan speech in Rogue Nation where he called Mr. Hunt "the living manifestation of destiny." Now's he's Team Ethan all the way. However, the IMF always has to be disavowed in some way. New CIA head Angela Bassett thinks the IMF are a bunch of "grown men in Halloween masks" and sends her own man to oversee Ethan, August Walker. If Walker could twirl his infamous mustache, he would have.

The action in Fallout is typical for Mission: Impossible, which is to say it's deliriously breathtaking. With the 56-year-old Cruise once more performing the majority of his own stunts, Ethan soars higher and takes more risks than ever. Ethan and Walker HALO jump 25,000 feet into Paris just to crash a party where the mysterious Apostle leader named "John Lark" is set to meet a broker called the White Widow (the fetching Vanessa Kirby). If you think about it, was the HALO jump even necessary? It's Paris, not North Korea - there are a dozen safer ways to enter the City of Lights. Nevertheless, that sets the stage for a brutal men's room brawl and an incredible motorcycle and car chase sequence all over Paris as Ethan evades the police after capturing Solomon Lane yet again. Ethan then parkours and runs across the rooftops of London chasing after Walker, who is revealed to be the real John Lark, before it all culminates in an absolutely spectacular helicopter chase that concludes with a fight on a Kashmir mountaintop where Ethan is literally dangling off the mountain by his fingertips.

For her part, Kirby delivers a speech about her mother Max, which means she must be the daughter of the original broker of information Ethan encountered in his first Mission in 1996. And the White Widow is powerfully attracted to Ethan, so like mother, like daughter. Also attracted to Ethan is MI-6 agent Ilsa Faust, who was Ethan's partner and foil in Rogue Nation. Ilsa joins the IMF at last, though not after betraying Ethan again, which he naturally forgives because he knows she has "reasons." That's the spy game for you. The best callback of all, however, is the return of Ethan's wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who has been on the run for her own safety since Mission: Impossible III. She's a doctor without borders now, married to Wes Bentley of all people, but when Ethan comes back into her life once again, she knows it's because the world is at stake. She gets him. "I like her," Ilsa realizes, and we agree. Even while four action set pieces are going on at once, George Lucas-style, in one of the best roller coaster third acts ever in an action movie, we're stunned at the emotional punch Julia and Ethan's reunion packs.

Poor Ethan apologizes eight times in Fallout: once to a French police woman who finds herself in the wrong place in the wrong time, once to Alec Baldwin, twice when he runs into a funeral in a cathedral while being chased by the Apostles, and four times to Julia herself. But as Julia notes, Ethan has nothing to be sorry for. Ethan's guilt over the way his adventures have upended his wife's life is expunged and finally, he's free of the secret torment he harbors - the same torment Solomon Lane uses against him in his nightmares. Of course, Ethan Hunt can't ever stop trying to save the world, and the world desperately needs him. But by the end, with Ilsa and the IMF, his team - no, his friends - rallied around him in the hospital after he put it all on the line once more, we regard Ethan with the same admiration that they do. Rest up, Mr. Hunt, and get back out there. The world needs you in Mission: Impossible 7.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Equalizer 2

THE EQUALIZER 2

** SPOILERS **

The Equalizer 2 plays right into that time-honored stage trope: if you say that there's a storm coming in Act 1, then that storm better come in like a motherfucker and you fight all the bad guys in it in Act III. Director Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer 2 resists calling itself the logical title of The Sequelizer; nonetheless, this is Denzel Washington's first-ever sequel in his illustrious career. Denzel returns as Robert McCall, a Boston native and former CIA operative with a certain set of skills and a hole in his lonely soul he can only fill by putting the hurt on very bad people. As established in the previous film, McCall is a man who believes in pure justice and will apply his certain set of skills on behalf of the unfortunate souls who cross his path and need his help. He's intelligent, unrelenting, and unstoppable. If you need the Equalizer, you can reach him via your Lyft app.

In the years since he massacred the entire Russian mafia to help a teenage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) get her life on track, McCall has left his job as a beloved manager at Home Depot. His vigilante activities require him to set his own hours, plus he needs to be amongst the people to figure out who is worthy of his incredible talent for murder. Like old man Logan, McCall entered the livery business; the many scenes of him scooting all over Boston and taxiing people to and fro are the most entertaining scenes in the movie. For all of the driving around, however, The Equalizer 2 is slow to get where it ultimately wants to go. The many, many scenes of Bob behind the wheel or trying to help out his neighbors, who had their apartment building and garden vandalized, are intermittently interspersed with, you know, the actual plot of the movie.

Bob is eventually pulled into a quest for revenge when his best friend and former CIA overseer Melissa Leo is murdered in Brussels. All signs point to Pedro Pascal, Bob's former teammate when they were running black ops together for the agency and sure enough, Pascal is the bad guy. There was never any doubt about this. The way McCall calls him out is a clever reversal of the villain threatening the hero's family; Bob drops by with all smiles and gets Pascal's wife and kids to warm up to him. They're blissfully unaware they're human shields while McCall plays Pascal right into his trap. After threatening Pascal and his mercenary buddies lives by telling them flat out he's going to murder them, McCall goes and does exactly that.

The original Equalizer climaxed with an extended shootout of McCall against the Russian mafia at Home Depot. Once more, McCall takes on his enemies on his home turf: he booby traps his seaside hometown of Marshfield, MA Home Alone-style and decimates Pascal's men in the middle of a typhoon. McCall effortlessly navigates his quaint New England hamlet completely unbothered by the relentless rain and wind, delivering methodical and brutal vengeance as the Right Hand of God. It's satisfying watching Denzel annihilate bad people, yet at the same time, he is never truly challenged, rarely injured, and he's not once in any actual danger. By staging the climactic battle in the midst of Mother Nature's wrath, The Equalizer 2 flat out announces that Bob McCall is the real force of nature.

Overall a drab affair, The Equalizer 2 takes quite a long while to shift into gear, yet it's comforting to ride along with Bob McCall. Even though he's a mass murderer, he is a righteous one and deep down we know he is the good guy. His murders are actually much lower key this time around; compared to the first movie, McCall's body count is seriously reduced. With no Moretz as his youthful foil, McCall is paired up with a troubled young artist named Miles (Ashton Sanders) whom he saves from becoming a gangbanger and tries to teach some life lessons to, but Miles doesn't exactly win the audience over. The question now is whether Denzel will actually set another precedent and make another Sequelizer. Maybe he will if we leave him a five-star rating.

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