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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Hotel Artemis

HOTEL ARTEMIS

** SPOILERS **

Hotel Artemis is the cinematic equivalent of one of those distracted boyfriend memes that's been all over the Internet for the last couple of years. You know the one. Written and directed by Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis posits an exclusive, members only secret Los Angeles hotel sanctuary for criminals run by the Nurse (Jodie Foster). It's a haven for bad guys who can't turn to traditional avenues for hospitality and medical care. 

However, outside the confines of the hotel is Los Angeles circa 2028 (a year before the events of the original Blade Runner; the universes are unrelated but the spirit is evoked). LA is in lockdown. The city is in the grips of a destructive riot as ordinary people take to the streets to protect the lack of clean drinking water. The City of Angels is a warzone. Helicopters are shot out of the sky by rocket launchers and explode into buildings as law enforcement struggles to contain the mob, These events, fleetingly glimpsed by news reports and by the film's main characters occasionally stepping outside the hotel, comes off as so much more compelling than what's actually going on in the Hotel Artemis. Hence. the distracted boyfriend meme, Hotel Artemis version:


Since we're mostly stuck in the hotel with criminals, albeit portrayed by some charismatic actors, you'd think the interactions between these bad guys with different agendas in such cramped quarters would be super interesting, but no, not really, though the actors try. Sterling K. Brown and Sofia Boutella are standouts; he just accidentally robbed the biggest crime boss in the city, Jeff Goldblum, and is trying to protect his dying brother from that very crime boss who's on his way to the hotel. Meanwhile, Boutella is a sexy international assassin here to kill Goldblum, but she runs afoul of a foul-mouthed skeevy arms dealer played by Charlie Day. Meanwhile, the Nurse tries to hold all this chaos together with the help of her loyal and good-hearted orderly Dave Bautista

A lot of scores are settled and there are revelations dropped about the Nurse's past and how it all ties into Goldblum, but it all feels undercooked and unearned. The third act, especially, should be taught in film schools, but as a cautionary tale since the reasons why the characters do just about anything they do are bewildering. Their actions feel more in service of the plot than anything that might actually benefit them from the way they're set up inititially - after all, they are criminals. There is bloody action and shootouts, but this isn't a visceral violent tour-de-force like John Wick either - though they try by giving Boutella a Daredevil-like hallway fight scene that she's fantastic in. Meanwhile, we're left wondering how the clean water riots turn out and the events that sparked them, all of which could have made for a hell of a lot more interesting a movie than Hotel Artemis turned out to be.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ocean's 8

OCEAN'S 8

** SPOILERS **

Like the cubic zirconia duplicate of the $150-million Cartier diamond necklace Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) plots to heist, Gary Ross' Ocean's 8 is an imperfect copy of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Trilogy. Debbie Ocean is the younger sister of Danny Ocean (George Clooney), who is believed to have died but she doesn't know for sure. Either way, Ocean's 8 spends a lot of its running time genuflecting at the feet of its predecessors, making it very clear that they're heisting in the spirit of Danny Ocean and his crew. "You would have loved it," Debbie swears to Danny's grave at the very end, and one can picture George Clooney's affable grin and agreeable nod, though what Danny Ocean was really thinking we never knew for sure. He'd probably react the same to Ocean's 8.

Debbie spent 5 years in prison masterminding a jewelry heist at the Met Gala (while making it clear their score is stealing from someone at the museum and not from the museum itself - though that turns out to be a lie). Once out of the clink, she immediately assembles roughly 70% of the crew that her big brother usually ran with: Cate Blanchett is her partner, Rihanna is their hacker and tech guru, Mindy Kaling is their forger, Sarah Paulson is their fence, Helena Bonham Carter is their accomplice, Awkwafina is their pickpocket, and Anne Hathaway is their unwitting mark, until she isn't. 

Hathaway blows everyone away and is the best thing in Ocean's 8; she delights as a wry parody of how people perceive celebrated movie star actresses (especially herself) behave, but she's also the only one with a character arc in the film. Blanchett, in the Brad Pitt sidekick role, does her best despite having to actual character to play; she even lacks Pitt's constant eating as a running gag. As for Debbie Ocean herself, Bullock is subdued, as if she's either keeping a private joke or stifling the urge to sneeze the entire time. Debbie Ocean's 8 lack the overall charm of Danny Ocean's Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen), but the actresses' raw talents rise above what little there is for them to work with on the page.

Of course, Debbie is working a side hustle, just like big brother was. Danny's original Las Vegas score was also a plan to reunite with his estranged wife Tess (Julia Roberts). For Debbie, it's the opposite: she's out to frame and send her ex-boyfriend Richard Armitage to prison for ratting her out and sending her to the slammer for five years. Like Brad Pitt did to Clooney, Blanchett objects when she finds out, then goes along with it anyway.  What Ocean's 8 sorely lacks, however, is a villain of any sort, and Ross' film illustrates how vitally important Andy Garcia's malevolent casino owner Terry Benedict was to Ocean's Eleven. Without an opposing force that puts the Ocean crew at risk, Ocean's 8 essentially sails through its heist in a breeze. All of their plans go off without a hitch, they're never in any jeopardy whatsoever, and what little that does momentarily go wrong is covered up by Sandra Bullock yelling at someone in a foreign accent.

Overall, Ocean's 8 is entertaining enough but proves itself to be a fraction as good as Eleven or Thirteen (it probably ranks alongside the unmemorable Twelve). After each scoring eight figures in the end, even the rewards the ladies choose for themselves are boring: Hathaway decides to become a film director (why?), Blanchett buys a motorcycle, and Bullock takes a subway ride to Danny Ocean's tomb instead of buying a house in Lake Como, which is what big brother would do.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

** SPOILERS **

Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) gets his famous surname in Solo: A Star Wars Story. It's given to him by a disinterested recruitment officer for the Empire because Han says he's all alone. The three years Solo serves in the Empire, first as a washout pilot in the Imperial Navy and later as a boots-on-the-ground grunt (the Empire has normal soldiers and doesn't rely exclusively upon Stormtroopers?), are the only time Han is ever really solo. Otherwise, Solo is surrounded by friends, most importantly, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), the heart and soul of the whole movie. Where would Han be without his best Wookiee friend (who owes him a life debt for busting him out of Imperial prison, though the film never mentions the life debt part)? Nowhere, that's where.

Ron Howard's Solo: A Star Wars Story is the story of Solo, formerly known as just "Han", a twentysomething who grew up a thief in the grimy, ship-building world of Corellia. (If there's a bright center to the universe, Corellia would be the planet it's farthest from, to paraphrase some kid on Tatooine.) Han wanted to run away and see the galaxy with his best girl Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke), but the gangsters who raised them had other ideas. Qi'ra began Han's canonical attraction to petite brunettes with pretty faces and British accents. It turns out a British accent is Han's biggest lure: on an Imperial battlefield, he meets his mentor Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a smuggler working with Val (Thandie Newton), who has, you guessed it, a pretty face and a British accent. Han and Chewie end up as part of their crew, pulling a bungled train heist for crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), the leader of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. Vos also has a British accent, and Bettany has a pretty face, so he counts. Luckily for Han, Qi'ra, the girl he's trying to get back to save, now works for Vos as his trusted lieutenant. She's "done a lot of things" to get to where she's at, warnings to Solo she ominously and routinely drops and Han is happy to ignore. Solo is the only one shocked when she turns on him.

Since this is a Star Wars story of a beloved canonical character, Solo has to check the many boxes of Fan Service. We learn how Han meets his frenemy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the smooth, impeccably-caped card sharp who just happens to own the Millennium Falcon, the ship destined to belong to Solo. The fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy is brand-spanking new - at least until Solo gets his hands on it. Lando's co-pilot is a social justice-seeking droid named L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who has a British accent if not the requisite pretty face, but that's good enough for Han as well. Together, this motley crew pulls off the infamous Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs as they steal and smuggle unstable hyperfuel called Coaxium to pay off a debt to Vos. Hunting them down are space pirates led by the masked Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman). When Nest removes her helm and reveals herself to be a girl with a pretty face and a British accent, there's instantly no doubt Solo will turn on Vos and side with this babe and her burgeoning 'Rebellion' against the evil Empire. (Qi'ra even says it outright: "He's going to help her.") And there are, or course, callbacks to the Original Trilogy (thermal detonator, a kiss on the cheek "for luck", the Falcon runs afoul of a giant monster in outer space, Han shoots first) that are fun to spot.

Solo's climax is impressive (most impressive) by featuring no less than five double crosses: 1. Lando double crosses Han and leaves with the Falcon. 2. Han, Qi'ra and Chewie double cross Vos with fake Coaxium. 3. Beckett double crosses Han by revealing he sold them out to Vos. 4. Qi'ra double crosses Vos and kills him to take command of the Crimson Dawn (for those of us who don't read or care about the Star Wars Extended Universe, the sudden appearance of a long-dead Phantom Menace villain makes no sense and reeks of Fan Service), and 5. Q'ira double crosses Han and leaves him with his Wookiee as she becomes the new crime lord of the galaxy. As Homer Simpson would say, Solo learns a valuable lesson: "Never trust anyone." Except for your Wookiee. Always stand by your Wookiee and he'll look after you.

Volumes have been written - and will continue to be - about the behind the scenes chaos that birthed Solo, ultimately resulting in Ron Howard directing the picture and bringing it to the finish line. Solo shows the mark of an efficient, experienced hired hand brought in to make the shoot days and execute this by-the-numbers origin story written by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. Howard rarely generates his own material, preferring to adapt existing works or the stories of others to mixed results (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, Rush, In The Heart of the Sea), but his surehanded guidance keeps this project from the disastrous, Millennium Falcon-crushing gravity well it was turning into. One also gets the sense that if Howard was in charge from the start, he wouldn't have cast Ehrenreich, whose constant mugging masks a genuine sincerity, yet never jives with the beloved 'real' Han Solo originated by Harrison Ford. This would be fine if Ehrenreich were playing an alternate universe Han like Chris Pine did Kirk in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek films, but this is supposed to be the same guy Ford played, so. Although Solo never makes the jump to a magical hyperspace of imagination like the best Star Wars films (could it ever have?), overall, it's a solid, enjoyable romp through the seedier worlds of the galaxy far, far away. Considering the Han Solo solo film should have detonated like so much unstable Coaxium, the fact that the Han Solo solo film is fine (it's fine) is a win.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Women of Avengers: Infinity War at Screen Rant

WOMEN OF AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR AT SCREEN RANT

One of the best parts of writing feature articles for Screen Rant is getting to deep dive into the biggest films, like Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War. I've written over a dozen Features about the film - such as Infinity War Was Worth The Ten Year Wait, which I totally recommend checking out - and among them were a series of mini features on the spectaular female superheroes of Infinity War.



Friday, April 27, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

** SPOILERS **

I Hope They Remember You

"I'm with you til the end of the line," is the famous promise Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) made to each other for a century. Avengers: Infinity War is that end, the 19th film and the culmination of the last decade of the unprecedented success called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A grand and shattering treatise on death, loss, sacrifice, and heroism on a truly universal scale never before witnessed in superhero movies, Infinity War brings the epic feeling of event comic book crossovers to movies. It's not for the newbie; it's for the True Believer. Infinity War demands a working foreknowledge of the characters, relationships, and plot points that have been woven through most of the prior films. It trades on the affection audiences have for these heroes (and villains). And in the end, it shockingly wipes the slate clean with a snap of Thanos' fingers.

A loose adaptation of arguably the greatest Marvel epic, The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos (Josh Brolin) finally attempts to assemble the six Infinity Stones which represent the fundamental aspects of the universe: Power, Space, Reality, the Soul, Time, and the Mind. He's driven by his lifelong quest to balance the universe by eradicating half of it. In the comics, Thanos is a vainglorious lunatic in love with the personification of Death who is nonetheless charming and fascinating. Brolin's Thanos is a different, but satisfying take on the Mad Titan; driven, intelligent, mournful, but savage. Thanos has a heart, which is reserved for children he adopts and raises to be his lieutenants for his twisted cause. His favorite remains one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to the chagrin of her long-suffering "sister" Nebula (Karen Gillan). Thanos and Gamora's relationship takes center stage, the latest and most tragic of Marvel's exploration of the harm fathers can cause their children.

Wholesale slaughter is Thanos' stock and trade, and absolutely everyone feels his wrath. The Avengers, broken apart and scattered in Earth and in space since their own Civil War, assemble in smaller groups to try to protect the two Infinity Stones still on Earth: the Time Stone is in the possession of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who, along with Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and the remaining Guardians of the Galaxy, try to take the fight to Thanos on his homeworld of Titan. Meanwhile, the Mind Stone ensconced in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany) is defended in Wakanda by Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Steve Rogers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Bucky, War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision's lover Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). In one of the film's many interesting inversions of expectations, Banner can no longer Hulk out after his gamma-powered alter ego is humiliated by Thanos in battle when the evil aliens slaughter the people of Asgard, including poor Loki (Tom Hiddleston). 

Not every character meets each other, and some long-simmering issues remain unresolved (the biggest being Steve Rogers and Tony Stark falling out), but the meet-cutes between the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy that occur are beyond satisfying. No surprise, Marvel's two biggest egotists, the technological Tony Stark and the mystical Doctor Strange can't stand each other. Peter Parker is finally christened as an Avenger and fights alongside his mentor Tony, who watches out for him with a care and affection we've never quite seen Iron Man display before. The Guardians meet Thor (Chris Hemsworth), whose handsomeness impresses Drax (Dave Bautista) and irritates Star-Lord (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, Thor takes a shine to Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). The God of Thunder has by far suffered the most loss and tragedy in his two most recent appearances, but Infinity War restores him to his maximum godhood, complete with a new weapon, the Stormbreaker ax. 

The Avengers rise to the occasion in Infinity War. Despite their differences and the apocalyptic odds against them in the form of Thanos' powerful servants and their army of CGI monsters who invade New York City and Wakanda, we see the heroes at their very best (except Peter Quill). At a muscular, relentless, and overwhelming two-and-a-half hours, Infinity War is still unable, by design, to deliver everyone and every type of interaction one would hope to see. No one in the film gets the full picture of everything going on. Steve Rogers and his team's actions speak louder than words in defense of Wakanda, while Stark and his warriors are cut off from their fellow Avengers in space. Some of Thanos' minions have sufficient personality for the Avengers to banter with as they lay the smack down on each other, while Tony Stark's fame is revealed to be universal. Rather than kill the man at the center of the Marvel movie universe, Infinity War reaffirms Tony Stark as the center of that universe. It also, shockingly, does the same for the original core group of Avengers who started it all (well, almost all of them). 

The final act goes for the gusto and cements Infinity War as Marvel's version of Lord of the Rings. The universe is changed, and the body count is "Holy shit!" staggering and truly shocking. The boldest choice by directors Joe and Anthony Russo is how the main character of the story succeeds in his ultimate goal, with no obvious path to how the surviving heroes can come back and save the universe. It's a true, genuinely unsettling cliffhanger. Everyone, in the film, and in the audience, loses someone they love in Infinity War, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe loses its innocence at last. There's no telling what exactly happens next or how. Just a slight tinge of hope at the very end that the universe can indeed be saved, by a woman who bears Marvel's namesake.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Chappaquiddick

CHAPPAQUIDDICK

** SPOILERS **

Chappaquiddick is a sturdy lesson in crisis management, Kennedy-style. On July 18, 1969 - a couple of days before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon - the DUI Senator Edward M. "Ted" Kennedy (Jason Clarke) drove his car off the Dike Bridge into the water below. Kennedy somehow escaped but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) wasn't as lucky. As Kennedy emerged safely, Mary Jo drowned in his vehicle. Fearing public disgrace, the end of his prospective Presidential run and the ruination of his political career, Kennedy waited 9 hours to report the incident. Instead, he recruited Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), his cousin, attorney, and family fixer, and Paul F. Markham (Jim Gaffigan), the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, to help him explain away the crime. And he would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for the meddling press, investigators, and everyone else peering into this careless and sloppy attempt at a cover-up. 

As Kennedy wrestles with his conscience, his poor character, and the expectations of his disappointed, ailing father Joseph P. Kennedy (Bruce Dern) - whose strategies for a cover-up Kennedy ignores - Chappaquiddick doesn't really build up steam until the lawyers come into the picture. Led by Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown), essentially Mr. Burns' ten high-priced lawyers all take turns yelling at Kennedy for his hare-brained ideas to keep his name clean. Kennedy's dumbest, by far, was feigning a concussion the night of the accident and wearing a neckbrace to Mary Jo's funeral. Like the swarthy guy who wore a neckbrace to Carol Brady's trial and Mike Brady subsequently exposed in a Brady Bunch episode, Kennedy forgot a guy in a neckbrace shouldn't be able to crane his neck around. In the end, Kennedy never did become President, but his public statement and apology to the voters of Massachusetts ended up saving his political career.

Clarke is terrific as Ted Kennedy, and Chappaquiddick does a fine job evoking the Kennedy mythology, asking the audience to weigh whatever positive mystique the family retains to this day against the ugly reality of the deeply flawed, entitled men who carry that surname. The Kennedy magic largely died with Jack and Bobby, but Chappaquiddick showed enough of the mystique remained that the local law enforcement and even the voters still bent over backward to explain away the grave mistakes of the surviving Kennedy brother.

Friday, April 13, 2018

DC's Legends of Tomorrow at Screen Rant

DC'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW AT SCREEN RANT 

Midway in season 2 of DC's Legends of Tomorrow, during the Legion of Doom story arc, the needle began to move. Legends was always considered the fourth and least of the Arrowverse shows behind Supergirl, The Flash, and Arrow, but a shift had begun. Now that Legends' fabulous, raucous, and utterly bizarre season 3 is over, it has surpassed its sister series and has taken the top slot as the most entertaining - and dare I say best - Arrowverse series on The CW.

I've gotten to write some fun features in recognition of Legends season 3 for Screen Rant. Check them out collected below:




Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Tomb Raider

TOMB RAIDER

** SPOILERS **

Tomb Raider could be more accurately titled "Lara Croft's Adventures With The 2nd Unit." The reboot of the 2001 and 2004 films that starred Angelina Jolie as the world's most famous British video game heroine (which itself is based on the video game reboot of the 1990s games) is the origin story of the titular Tomb Raider. Here, Lara is a 21 year old launched on her first adventure to find her father Dominic West, missing for 7 years and presumed dead on a mysterious Japanese island. Essentially "Lara Croft Begins", the young Tomb Raider-in-training must travel to that same island to find answers and her destiny. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way to that island, the film lost its director Roar Uthaug and its two credited screenwriters. They must have died en route. With no director and no story to speak of, this left the 2nd unit to stage elaborate stunt shows for Lara to survive to pad out the film's running time.

"I'm not that kind of Croft," Lara says wink-wink in the beginning. Indeed, Alicia Vikander is the best and only thing to watch in Tomb Raider, but she decidedly isn't her predecessor. The commonalities Vikander shares with Jolie are that they are both Academy Award-winners and neither of them are British, which seem to be the two requirements to portray Lara Croft. Lean, chiseled, and constantly injured, Vikander's Lara is neither as fully-formed in bountiful proportions nor in Tomb Raiding skills and gadgetry as Jolie, but she makes up for it in pluck and likeability. Jolie was a perfect video game avatar given flesh and form. In contrast, Vikander's Lara is not the best at everything; she gets her ass kicked a lot and barely scrapes through by the seat of her pants (she also wears pants in the jungle, unlike her predecessor). By the end though, Vikander takes on the more familiar iconography, weaponry, and confidence of Lara Croft, but she's more interesting as a reckless youth in over her head.

The first act of Tomb Raider is its best: unwilling to inherit the vast fortune left behind by her missing father, Lara spends her wayward youth getting pummeled in an MMA gym and eking out a living as an East London bike courier. This section of Tomb Raider surprisingly plays as a welcome (if unintended) homage to Jessica Alba in Dark Angel, wherein Alba's genetically-engineered super soldier also made two-wheeled deliveries while hanging with the eclectic layabouts of Jam Pony Express. Soon, Lara discovers her dad is a big weirdo: the kind who uses his own family crypt (on the grounds of Croft Manor!) as a secret headquarters full of Tomb Raiding paraphenelia. Lord Richard Croft left behind puzzles for his clever daughter to solve, as well as video instructions to destroy all evidence of his quarry: the tomb of an ancient Japanese Empress of Death. Lara decides to use the research to find her father. She jets off to Hong Kong and hires drunk sailor Daniel Wu to charter her a course to the mystery island in the Devil's Triangle. Sure, enough the seas start getting rough and their tiny ship is tossed. The movie's ability to tell a coherent story also goes down with the boat. 

Essentially, Lara washes ashore on Lian Yu, the island Oliver Queen was trapped on in Arrow. On the island, instead of Deathstroke, Lara meets the lone American in the film played by Walter Goggins, a dead-eyed villain who has been on the island for 7 years looking for the Japanese Empress' tomb. Why? He doesn't say. He works for a shadowy evil global network called Trinity. Why? He doesn't say. Why does Trinity want what's in the tomb? He doesn't say. To proclaim that every other character in Tomb Raider besides Lara is "underwritten" seems insufficient; it's more like they are "unwritten." Once the 2nd unit takes over the movie, Lara is kidnapped, beaten, chased, shot at, strangled, and survives harrowing cliffhangers that should have killed her. Yet, for everything else not involving frenetic action that Vikander is gamely up for, the island is Tomb Raider's dead zone.

Meanwhile, after 7 years of Goggins and his armed mercenaries leading an Asian death camp, they somehow were unable to find The World's Most Obvious Tomb On A Mountain Which Has Puzzles Set In The Gate until Lara showed up. 7 years?! The island isn't even that big: Lara ran across it in like a minute. Oh, Lara's father is alive, no surprise, and he's a huge disappointment. Lord Croft is no Henry Jones Sr.; he's as boring and empty as the blank pages in Henry's diary. The raiding of the Japanese Empress' tomb is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade-lite, with Lara solving easy color puzzles while the bad guys are picked apart by the tomb's many death traps. Adding to the sum total of Things That Don't Make Sense, the island is dangerous to get to by boat because storms sink anything that sails towards it, but Trinity can send a helicopter to the island any time it wants and they're greeted by clear, sunny, blue skies.  

Tomb Raider utterly fails its star and the audience. The film collapses like the floor of the Japanese Empress' tomb under Lara's dainty weight. Through it all, though, Vikander is imminently watchable and gung ho, even if the stunt team are the only ones in the production offering her any support. If Tomb Raider ignites the desire in any girls or boys in the audience to enter the Tomb Raiding profession, Tomb Raider teaches that the most important skill a Tomb Raider can have is the ability to do one-armed pullups. This will literally save your life every ten minutes despite whatever the 2nd unit can throw at you.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Red Sparrow

RED SPARROW
** SPOILERS **

"Your superiors are getting impatient," Dominika Egorova's handler says to her more than once in Red Sparrow. Personally, I wouldn't consider the audience Jennifer Lawrence's "superior", but it does accurately describe sitting through the bulk of Red Sparrow. Lawrence plays Dominika, a prima ballerina who suffers a terrible accident on stage that ends her lauded career. Her value to the state depended entirely on being a beautiful dancer, but now that she can no longer dance, what is to become of Dominika and her sick mother Joely Richardson? The solution comes in the form of her uncle Matthias Schoenaert, a high-ranking official in Russian Intelligence who's a bit of a perv. Schoenaert has always fancied his fetching niece and sends her to serve the state in a brand new way: to be a Sparrow. "You sent me to Whore School," Dominika later accuses him. Well, yes. Funny, that.

To be a Sparrow, Dominika learns all of the important arts, namely how to seduce a man or woman and get all of their secrets, which also sets them up for disappearance or assassination. After learning her injury was no accident, Dominika gained her admission into Sparrow School by attacking the two ballerinas who ruined her career, in the first of two naked and bloody mid-sex bathroom beatdowns that brings to mind the banya scene from Eastern Promises. Dominika is then raped as she sets up a powerful Russian magnate for assassination, and thus her Sparrow School tuition is paid. Sparrow School is the best part of the movie; it's like Hogwarts for sexy Russian adults where the magic is all about what goes on underneath their robes. Dominika is a reluctant but quick study at disrobing, and soon, she graduates with honors and is ready to be a real-life Sparrow. 

Dominika's mission is to get close to the goofy-named CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and learn all of his secrets. As soon as this crazy hot Russian no one had ever heard of before gets close to Nash, everyone in the CIA knows she's a Sparrow, but they all play along anyway. (It's obvious why Nash lets Dominika get close to him.) As the story lurches forward for a glacially-paced 2 1/2 hour runtime, Dominika gets drawn into a labyrinthine web involving a drunken US Senator's assistant played by Mary-Louise Parker (the only comic relief in this grimly serious film) selling secrets in exchange for six figures in booze money. There's also a mole in the Russian government Dominika must uncover. Mostly, Dominika wants to get revenge on her uncle for sending her to Sparrow School in the first place, and for all of the torture and beatings she endures for Mother Russia.

Red Sparrow took a lot of shots on the Internet for basically being a Black Widow movie, but to finally see Red Sparrow is to realize this isn't a Marvel film at all. Though there's plenty of graphic and bloody violence, Dominika is no action heroine. Sparrow School teaches Dominika plenty about sex and seduction but no kung-fu superhero skills. Still, Sparrow School was more engaging than the 2/3rds of the movie with Dominika out in the wild, as we try to sort out what she's doing and why. Is Dominika a good Sparrow or a bad Sparrow, and who is she ultimately working for? For her part, Lawrence goes for broke playing Dominika, especially in the sex and nudity department. Probably the biggest victim of Internet leaks of her private photos a few years ago, Lawrence decides that it's high time she gets paid for your Fappening, and more power to her. Red Sparrow is also a reunion between Jennifer and her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and naturally, it contains the staple of Jennifer Lawrence waking up in a hospital. That Katniss Everdeen classic bit is evergreen, even if she's called Dominika now.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Black Panther

BLACK PANTHER

** SPOILERS **

Wakanda Forever!

Greetings from Wakanda! It's a nice place to visit and... goddamn it, why can't I live here forever? The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to far-flung locales like Asgard, Knowhere, Sakaar, and uh, Queens, but it turns out the greatest destination of all is right in our own backyard. Well, Africa, which secretly houses the hidden nation of Wakanda. Director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther builds a sensational and inviting new universe within the Marvel Universe and populates it with a noble king, a dastardly but provocative villain, dynamic and inspiring women, and only two white people. (Okay, three, counting Bucky Barnes.) Truly, Wakanda is the best place on Earth.

We first met and immediately grew to love T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War, but Black Panther only deepens our admiration for the Wakandan King. Newly crowned after the death of his father King T'Chaka (John Kani), T'Challa fends off two challengers to his throne while hunting down an old enemy, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the devious black market smuggler who has spent decades heisting Vibranium, the strongest metal on Earth, which is only found in Wakanda. Aside from an explosive jaunt in South Korea (and trips to Oakland, CA), the bulk of Black Panther vividly explores Wakanda and asks pointed questions about the sins of its past and its hopeful future.

Soon, T'Challa discovers a long-buried secret of his father's: a tragic tale of fratricide and the existence of his American-born cousin, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, all amazing swagger). The gradual reveal of Killmonger's history and why he covets the Wakandan throne elevates Black Panther to another level of superhero movie altogether. As does the thoughtful political debate the film inspires, where T'Challa wrestles with whether to shed Wakanda's millennia-held guise as a poor Third World nation and use their Vibranium technology to benefit the world. Meanwhile, Killmonger has his own ideas about that: conquest, and arming people of African descent with Vibranium weapons to forge a Wakandan Empire. T'Challa and his cousin Erik are two sides of the same coin, and their conflict is thrilling, deeply personal, and by the end, genuinely moving.

The Black Panther has a ball playing with all of the toys at his disposal, gleefully provided by the scene-stealer Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's irrepressible teenage sister who also happens to be the smartest person on the planet. Along with Shuri, the king is also surrounded by the most resplendent female cast ever in a Marvel movie. His mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is noble and proud. Wakanda's greatest warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the elite all-female Dora Milaje, is every bit as formidable as the king she protects. Best of all, Nakia (Lupita N'yongo) shatters the "Marvel Girlfriend" tradition by being devoted to her king while remaining independent, brave, globally-minded, and heroic in a fight. Nakia is as personally responsible for saving Wakanda as T'Challa is, a fact that does not escape his attention or appreciation.

Black Panther is not just a great Marvel superhero movie, it's one of the best-ever examples of the genre. Coogler stages thrilling action set pieces and not just honors Marvel's proven comic book movie tropes but also invokes classic James Bond movie iconography with a "Q scene" of T'Challa receiving upgraded tech, an eye-popping casino action sequence, and a glorious Bond-like end credits sequence. (Black Panther is as great a Bond movie as Skyfall, in fact.) The third act is reminiscent of and betters The Phantom Menace, with three simultaneous action sequences: a battle between two armies in a field, an aerial dogfight, and the hero and villain battling in a high-tech subterranean location that seems to descend into infinity. Through it all, we heartily cheer on the heroes while the villains maintain understandable motivations as they commit their nefarious acts. Also, Black Panther is the only superhero movie where two of the only three white people in it are missing their left arms. Like Wakanda itself, that's a record that should remain forever unbroken.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX

** SPOILERS **

Show of hands if the origin and backstory of the Cloverfield monster from 10 years ago was a pressing concern to you. All right, everyone at Bad Robot, put your hands down. 

The Cloverfield Paradox, long delayed and suddenly appearing on Netflix without warning like the giant monster did in Manhattan a decade ago, used to be a sci-fi film called God Particle. On a space station, an international bunch of science-y types are trying to solve the Earth's enegy crisis by firing a particle accelerator in orbit. The plan is to produce limitless clean energy which would prevent the wars brewing across all nations. Somehow, when they fired their particle accelerator, they made the Earth disappear. And somewhere along the way, J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot got ahold of God Particle and decided to Cloverfield it up. They took a hacksaw to God Particle and then shoehorned the Cloverfield backstory into it. The shoehorn was emblazoned with the Bad Robot logo and came with a coupon for a free Slusho.

The hack'n'slash is evident from the opening credits, which are comprised of multiple cuts of scenes that probably explain the story better and deepen the characters. Instead, what we're left with is a half-cooked sci-fi thriller with very little explanation of what's happening. The scientists on board the now-rebranded Cloverfield Space Station - it's never made clear what most of their jobs are besides that David Oyelowo is the mission leader and Chris O'Dowd is the doofy mechanic whose arm gets painlessly ripped off - are faced with a lot of weird happenings. Elizabeth Debicki suddenly materializes within a wall, despite the fact that no one has any idea who she is. Meanwhile, a Russian guy and a German guy played by Daniel Bruhl are reentacting World War II in the year 2028 and really hate each other. Each claims the other is a traitor, and depending on which parallel universe they are actually in, they both could be right. 

Oh yes, the space station ended up in a parallel universe - though the movie adds confusion by showing the Cloverfield Station drift off into space so when they 'lose' Earth, it's not clear if the planet is really gone or they just floated too far away from it. There's no super smart techsplaining in Cloverfield Paradox, and the fix is pretty simple: just fire the particle accelerator again and all will be well. It really was just that easy; the only complication was most of the astronauts deciding to kill each other. 

Our sympathies are firmly with Gugu Mbatha-Raw from Black Mirror, the only actual character in the movie. She mourns for the family who died because of a tragic mistake she made, and she's tempted to stay in the parallel world because her kids are alive there, never mind how that could possibly work. Eventually, she makes the obvious but difficult decision to not go live in a Mirror Universe, which already has a perfectly fine version of her. Meanwhile, on Earth, her husband Roger Davies runs into the path of the giant Cloverfield monsters now rampaging all over the planet, and he has to get himself and a young girl he found to Ned Flanders' emergency bunker in a half-baked subplot. 

The Cloverfield Paradox reveals that the monsters from the first movie and the ones from this movie we barely see are all on Earth because of the horrific goofup by the Cloverfield Station. So there are our answers. These astronauts are entirely to blame. While the parallel world Debicki is from is caught up in a world war, at least there seem to be no kaiju there so maybe Mbatha-Raw should have stuck around the Mirror Universe after all. And speaking of Mirror Universes, does this one need an Emperor? Because I know of one who's out of work and looking for a new gig.



Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS

** SPOILERS **

Behold science fiction cinema's worst on screen couple, a romantic pairing so repellent, they make Anakin and Padme look like Jack and Rose. Dane DeHaan is Valerian, a Major in the ill-defined United Human Federation. Cara Delevingne is Laureline, a fellow agent who, despite being infinitely more competent than Valerian, is ranked beneath him as a mere Sergeant, so that's what the future's like. Valerian and Laureline are partners, but more than that, together or apart - but especially together - they are cosmic black holes of human empathy. Valerian is a total creep; a smarmy, self-obsessed waste of matter who is somehow the hero of this movie because his name is in the title. Laureline is forever fending off his lewd advances of love and marriage, all the while secretly attracted to him because she herself is devoid of anything resembling palpable humanity. They are gross.

Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based upon a 'beloved' series of graphic novels you probably have to be a Frenchman to have ever heard of, is a lot like his well-regarded The Fifth Element, except with Valerian, Besson cranks up the splatters of colors while wringing out all of the charm and whimsy. The skeezbag and supposed lady killer Valerian is no Bruce Willis, not even close. Willis possesses the gravitas and charisma of a true movie star, while DeHaan is pure anti-matter. Milla Jovovich was vulnerable and loveable in a way that Laureline could never be because Laureline is a sociopath just like Valerian, encased in a 'cool female action hero' facade that wears thin mere moments after being graced with her presence. Valerian and Laureline are meant to be together and save a universe you're screaming to escape upon entry.

It starts off so well too: The City of a Thousand Planets was once Alpha Station, the International Space Station celebrating the cooperation and unity of mankind before aliens started arriving and joining their technology to ours in a charming montage set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Exponentially growing to become a gigantic, multi-species city, Alpha Station eventually leaves Earth orbit, and 500 years later, it becomes the fabled City of a Thousand Planets, home to 70 million humans and aliens working together in intergalactic harmony. However, something's rotten in the City of a Thousand Plants, involving a secret conspiracy within the government and the genocide of a planet over a MacGuffin: a little alien critter that poops out countless priceless alien pearls. 

Everything in the movie is fine for about 10 minutes, which is not coincidentally when we meet Valerian and Laureline. After this, the movie itself becomes poop, with a convoluted plot offering zero surprises to anyone paying attention or has seen any other sci-fi movie. Ethan Hawke and Rihanna drop in to ham in it up, but overall, everyone in Valerian, human or alien, looks either befuddled or downright embarrassed. Everyone except Valerian and Laureline, that is. Both DeHaan and Delevingne are at least gung ho about starring in this universe, which places them and their noxious 'will they or won't they?' love affair firmly at the center, like the fetid core of a rotten apple.

Clive Owen is also in this. What happened to his career?


 

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