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Friday, September 13, 2019

Downton Abbey

DOWNTON ABBEY

** SPOILERS **

Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes and director Michael Engler's splendid feature film of the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning TV series, is a pristine snowglobe where you peer into a lost and impossibly luxurious world that may never have existed quite like that but that's escapism of fantasy, isn't it? Downton Abbey picks up 18 months after the series finale and continues the stories of the Crawley family upstairs and the dauntless servants who live downstairs. As always, there's so much to do and there's no time for introductions; just as one cannot simply enter the magnificent estate of Downton Abbey and poke around willy-nilly, the film isn't for first-timers or someone just wandering in off the street. You have to know your Lady Marys from your Mr. Molesleys to truly appreciate what's happening. Downton Abbey may be for fans only but for the devotees, this is a glorious reunion that puts everyone's best foot forward.

When Downton Abbey begins, tremendous news arrives: King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) are touring Yorkshire in the North of England and will stay at Downton for the night. This is a great honor for the Crawley family - Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), Lady Mary Talbot (Michelle Dockery), Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) - but for the servants below-stairs, the arrival of the Royal staff only means one thing: invasion. Chuffed that the Royal Family will sample their food and hospitality, Downton's irrepressible servants Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol), Daisy (Sophie McShera), Andy the Footman (Michael Fox), Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), Mrs. Baxter (Racquel Cassidy), Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) are furious when Mr. Wilson, the Royal Butler (David Haig) and the snooty Royal Chef Monsieur Courbet (Philippe Spall) lay down a new pecking order: they have all been replaced by the King's men and women. Meanwhile, Lady Mary is concerned that Barrow (Robert James-Collier) isn't up to snuff as Downton's butler and recruits Carson (Jim Carter) to return to lead the staff and defend Downton's reputation. Carson, surprisingly, finds himself in over his head but so does Barrow, who discovers his first gay night club and gets himself in trouble. Luckily, his new friend, the King's valet Mr. Ellis (Max Brown) is there to bail him out. 

While all that happens downstairs, there's plenty of drama upstairs. Indeed, Downton Abbey has more characters and concurrent storylines than Avengers: Endgame. Violet is ready for a confrontation when she hears her distant cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) is joining the King and Queen at Downton; Bagshaw refuses to name Robert Crawley the heir to her estate and instead plans to leave it all to her maid Lucy (Tuppance Middleton) - which prompts Isobel, Baroness Merton (Penelope Wilton), Violet's best frenemy, to serve as peacemaker. Captain Chetwode (Stephen Campbell Moore), a mystery man, recruits Branson - who's both Lord Grantham's son-in-law and an Irish Republican - for some sort of plot against the King. Edith, now Marchioness of Hexam (Laura Carmichael), arrives with her husband Bertie, the Marquess of Hexam (Harry Hadden-Paton) with happy news that she's pregnant but she receives unhappy news that the King requires Bertie to go on a tour of Africa just as their child will be born. The Crawleys also learn that Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) is unhappy in her marriage - oh, the Royals! They're just like us!

With so many characters and stories and so much opulence and pageantry, it's fascinating who falls into mere supporting roles (Lord Grantham, Mr. Bates) and who emerges to the forefront. As much as anyone's, the movie belongs to Tom Branson, Daisy, and Anna Bates. Anna masterminds the defense of "the glory of Downton". She leads the revolution downstairs where Downton's staff engineers the dismissal of the King's people so that they would have the honor of cooking and serving the royal dinner - which Mr. Molesley almost ruins in the film's most gasp-inducing moment. Daisy, more confident and spirited than ever, reveals that she's not a monarchist and asserts herself throughout the film before deciding it's time to marry Andy (a story thread that will perhaps be picked up in a sequel). And cheerful, noble Branson is literally the hero of the hour: he prevents a dastardly assassination plot on the King and finds a new romance with Lucy, who, it really comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers Lady Edith's storyline with Marigold, is actually Lady Bagshaw's daughter. Of course, if Tom marries Lucy, her vast inheritance would go to him - a delicious scheme Violet is calculatedly perpetrating from the shadows. Speaking of Violet, there's a moment between her and Lady Mary that harkens back to Spock telling Valeris that she is meant to succeed him in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that's both sad and lovely - no doubt, it will work out better for the Crawleys than it did the Vulcans.

Despite the rich drama (and the notable absences of Lily James as Lady Rose and Samantha Bond as Aunt Rosamund), there is lovely heart and humor all throughout Downton Abbey and nary a villain to be found upstairs. Even the King and Queen turn out to be decent and affable people who are "quite used to people acting strangely" around them. Indeed, the film, like Downton Abbey the series, is about second chances, looking closer past a facade to find the (often beautiful) truth underneath, and celebrating people above and below, in all stations of life. Thankfully, Downton Abbey saw no need to reinvent the wheel or transform what the series was into something it isn't to please the masses. As a feature film adaptation of a beloved TV series, Downton Abbey is superior to and more fulfulling than its peers like X-Files: Fight The Future, Star Trek Generations, and the Veronica Mars movie. Downton Abbey, like the great house, the Crawley family, and the traditions they cling to, refuses to change (too much) and, in these troubled times, that's its greatest and most reassuring strength.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

IT: Chapter Two

IT: CHAPTER TWO 🎈🎈

** SPOILERS **

In IT: Chapter Two, the Losers Club return to their haunted home town of Derry, Maine after 27 years to solve the same problem they faced as tweens: How do you kill a CGI clown? In IT: Chapter One, they beat IT with the power of friendship, a united front, and by hitting it over and over with whatever blunt instruments they had on hand. But IT, also known as its preferred form (for some reason), Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), is awake again and launched a new reign of terror over Derry. The lone Loser who remained in town, Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) sends out the TroubAlert ordering the rest of the Losers back to Derry to honor the solemn vows they made as children. They all shit their pants when they get the call and they continue shitting their pants all throughout IT: Chapter Two as the Losers face their old enemy and the memories of the horrific trauma they all suffered at the hands of IT.

Structurally, IT: Chapter Two is something to behold - and you're forced to because the movie three hours long and feels it. Just as the adult Losers are plunged in a cycle of repetition as they remember the awful moments of the summer of 1989 (when none of them watched Batman), the audience is also plunged into a cycle of repetition. IT: Chapter Two takes about a half-hour to check in with each Loser and how they're doing in their adult lives before they reluctantly return to Derry. Then, once they're back in Derry and meet for Chinese food, they split up like an old Justice League comic book and we have to follow each individual Loser as they collect a special magical token and confront their memories of events we didn't see in IT: Chapter One. The young actors who played the Losers, including Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, Jaeden Martell as Bill Denbrough, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom, Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Ulis, return in the flashbacks and while they don't quite blow the adult actors out of the water, the kids still bring more heart and emotion than their grown-up selves can muster, try as they might.

It turns out most of the adult Losers are doing great, at least on the surface: Bill (James McAvoy) is a successful screenwriter, even though everyone hates the endings he writes, including director Peter Bogdonavich. Ben (Jay Ryan) is a rich architect. Richie (Bill Hader) is a successful stand-up comedian, even though he still tells the same foul-mouthed jokes he did when he was 12 and didn't evolve his material to be more sophisticated. Eddie (James Ransone) is a successful NYC business guy of some sort. Stanley (Andy Bean) is also rich and married.  Poor Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a millionaire fashion designer but she's trapped in an abusive marriage (and she has the scars on her wrists to prove it, which none of the Losers ever mention). Only Mike is living in a ramshackle fashion in the attic above the Derry Library, but he's spent 27 years communing with Native Americans trying to figure out a way to kill IT. Yikes, look how long this review is already just name-checking everyone and trying to get up to speed. I haven't even mentioned the other characters from Chapter One that reappear, like Beverly's sicko dad and Henry Bowers, the psychopathic bully who turned into a psychopathic adult bully/killer/servant of Pennywise. Also, Stephen King lives in Derry and runs the thrift store because of course he does.

As the Losers get reacquinted with their past lives in Derry, old buried traumas bubble to the surface, always accompanied by Pennywise terrorizing them but never going for the kill for some reason. Bev remembers the postcard she thought Bill sent her but it was really Ben, who loved her from afar and still does. Richie confronts a secret he's long buried (he's gay) that Pennywise taunts him about but no one else discovers and why is it such a big secret in 2016 anyway? (Maybe the reason is this movie contains a sickening amount of literal bashing of gay men.) Bill has to reconcile his guilt where he believes he's the reason that Pennywise killed his little brother back in '89. Eddie has to face that his mom was fat... or something? Poor Stan killed himself rather than return to Derry; he explains this later in a letter that he "took himself off the board" and thereby did the Losers a solid since he's "the weakest one". Meanwhile, Mike has the thankless job of trying to wrangle all of the Losers and explain his half-baked plan to do a ritual to kill Pennywise, using an old Native American thing that has a drawing of six people holding hands (so I guess it's convenient that Stan couldn't make it).

It (and IT) all culminates in the cavernous bowels underneath the obvious haunted house in Derry where the true origin of Pennywise is revealed: IT came from outer space! The malevolent entity is a space alien of some sort and the remains of his meteor are still deep beneath Derry. The Losers have to muster all of their bravery to confront IT in its domain, but unlike when they were 12, only one of them brought a weapon: a fireplace poker fueled by the power of belief. Yet, in the end, the Losers defeat Pennywise not by hitting it with stuff but with a new, even more effective method: by yelling at it a lot and bullying the clown into submission - then they literally tear its heart out and smush it. Sure, why not. And with that, the Losers finally triumph over the ancient evil that infected their hometown, although no one else in the town is any the wiser.

IT: Chapter Two is best broken up into thirds: one third is very good, specifically the children and their relationships back in 1989, which are hearteningly resolved. One third is quite fine, specifically the adult Losers, who labor in the shadows of their childhood selves. The final third is complete schlock, specifically the jarring tonal abnormalities of the relentless comedy awkwardly jammed into this movie all throughout, and also Pennywise himself, a CGI monstrosity that's scary if you're absolutely terrified of pixels. IT: Chapter Two relies on the same moves over and over: LOUD noises and showing the clown briefly behind someone, wait until they turn around, and then the clown attacks them as a PlayStation-caliber CGI thingamajig that they escape by screaming and running away. And yet, despite the machinations of the jump scares, IT: Chapter Two is held together with a poignant underlying message of loyalty, unity, and caring for one another. Just as they did in IT: Chapter One, it's really thanks to the young Losers that IT: Chapter Two is occasionally elevated above being IT: Chapter Schlock.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Ready Or Not

READY OR NOT

** SPOILERS **

Regardless of everything else that happened in the gleefully gruesome Ready Or Not, Grace (Samara Weaving) accomplished something none of the X-Men were able to do in 7 movies over 19 years: get married at the X-Mansion. The opulent estate that once housed Charles Xavier and his mutants stands in as the home of the Le Domas family - or the Le Domas Dominion as they like to be called. Grace is overjoyed to marry into a clan of billionaires who created an empire from selling board games and playing cards, but her delight lasts until exactly midnight before the Le Domases hunt her in a deadly game of hide-and-seek. For Grace, the Le Domas family is literally the in-laws from Hell.

Grace is an orphan who grew up in foster homes so the prospect of marrying Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), heir to the dominion, and being part of an actual family is a dream come true for her. But while Alex is the prodigal son, he's no prize: he neglects to tell Grace about his family's little tradition that anyone marrying a Le Domas has to play a game with the family to prove they're worthy of being "one of us". Most times, it's a harmless board game but when Grace draws the card that says "hide-and-seek" from the family heirloom, a black box given to the patriarch Victor Le Domas by a mysterious Mr. Le Bail in the 19th century, the game turns deadly right away. Grace has to hide in the mansion, which is on lockdown, while the family, armed with weapons, hunts her. If she can make it to dawn, she wins - except the family has to kill and sacrifice her or else they'll all die themselves.

The great news is Samara Weaving is sensational and she's all-in as Grace, who literally has to fight off all of her in-laws and endures a night of pure torture. No one has suffered so much to be accepted into a family: Grace is shot and a hole is blown through her left hand, she's bloodied and scarred, she's tranquilized, survives a car crash, is stabbed in the shoulder, and she falls into a pit of goat and human corpses. Grace climbing out of said pit and forcing a nail through the hole in her left hand is one of the standout movie moments of 2019 along with Captain America ordering the Avengers to assemble and Brad Pitt beating a hippie to death by pounding her face into a wall. In fact, Grace can match Pitt in the face-pounding department, as her mother-in-law Becky (Andie MacDowell) found out.

Ready Or Not triumphantly (if a bit awkwardly) weaves black comedy, survival horror, a labyrinthine mythology about the Le Domas' family history, and pointed social commentary about how dirty and rotten the 1% can really be. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have fun staging the whacked-out theatrics but they don't do a particularly splendid job utilizing the geography and layout of the Le Domas mansion to place the audience alongside Grace as she tries to escape her confinement. Along with Weaving, Adam Brody as Alex's conscience-stricken "weak" older brother Daniel is a standout, as is the family's lunatic patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny). Vitally, the ending delivers the goods, with a insanely gruesome sequence of events where the Le Domas family get their just desserts - not unlike how Professor X met his end thanks to Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand. The unforgettable sight of the completely blood-covered Grace at the end is right up there with Florence Pugh covered in flowers at the end of Midsommar as two of the most fucked up climactic movie visuals of the year. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD

** SPOILERS **

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is a vivid dream of a Tinsel Town that existed once - not quite like that - but we wish it did. A lovingly detailed, freewheeling immersion into the 1969 Los Angeles of Tarantino's memories and desires, Once Upon a Time... is also the most genuinely endearing of the nine feature films he's directed. In fact, not only does Tarantino persuasively recreate the era of 1969 Hollywood, complete with the sights and the sounds of an epic soundtrack, but by the end, Tarantino shockingly does reality one better and saves Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) from the tragic fate that would befall her in real life.

In Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, an actor immensely worried about his place in the burgeoning New Hollywood movement. Rick was the star of a 1950s cowboy show called Bounty Law but he quit to go into the movies, only to get passed over for the lead role in The Great Escape. The guy who got the part? Steve McQueen - something that rankles Rick to this day and partly drove him to alcoholism and endless anxiety. Rick gets a rundown of his career from his agent Martin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who suggests the cure for his career troubles is to spend six months in Rome shooting spaghetti westerns. This confirms it for Rick: "I'm a has-been!" he moans to his best friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt); Cliff calmly replies, "Don't cry in front of the Mexicans."

Honestly, Rick's not doing so badly. He may no longer be a star but he's a working actor who wisely invested in a nice home in the Hollywood Hills. But he gazes longingly at the house right above him on the hill, which is now owned by Roman Polanski, the director of Rosemary's Baby, and his wife Sharon Tate. If Polanski would just cast Rick in one of his movies, that would be his ticket to movie stardom but alas, he's never met his neighbors. Instead, a hungover Rick goes to his guest spot on a pilot for a Western called Lancer, where all of his anxieties rise up. Rick meets Trudi (Julia Butters), an 8-year-old actor who's wise beyond her years and gives him a better peptalk than any adult he knows. When Rick musters up his talent and wows the cast and crew of Lancer, Trudi rewards him with praise he's been longing for: "That was the best acting I've ever seen in my whole life." Better than any five-star review in the papers, Rick's heart is buoyed and he's "Rick fuckin' Dalton" again. With Rick's arc, Tarantino creates perhaps his most endearing lead character; Dalton may be a drunk and temperamental, but thanks to DiCaprio baring Rick's heart to us, he's someone we truly root for.

Meanwhile, Tarantino pulls a more subtle trick with Sharon Tate; without anywhere close to the amount of dialogue Rick gets, Tarantino's camera follows Sharon through some of her adventures, like partying at the Playboy Mansion. The next day, Sharon goes to Westwood Village to buy a book and she decides to go to the movies to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin. With her bare feet up on the chair in front of her (Tarantino's foot fetish is on full display in this film), Tate listens delightedly as the audience cheers and laughs at all the right places. Purely through her performance, Robbie makes Tate as endearing as Rick Dalton, and we get a pit in our stomach dreading what is bound to happen to her according to history.

While all that's going on, however, Cliff Booth goes on his own adventure. The stuntman is shunned by the Hollywood community because he's known as "the guy who killed his wife and got away with it". (Whether he did or not is up to the audience to believe.) Hence, Cliff sticks close to his buddy Rick and is satisfied being his driver and gofer, despite his poor career prospects. While Rick is shooting Lancer, Cliff picks up a hippie chick named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) he's seen hitching around Hollywood Boulevard. Decades older than her, Cliff knows enough not to do anything that'll land him in jail. Besides, his stuntman sense starts tingling when she says she and "others like her" live in Spahn Movie Ranch, where Cliff worked as a stuntman 8 years ago.

At Spahn Ranch, Cliff unwittingly discovers the Charles Manson Family, though he escapes unharmed never realizing who and what they are. One of the most intense set pieces in the film, the Spahn Ranch sequence also pays off the lecture Rick's agent gives him earlier: Schwarz gives Rick a breakdown on how audiences perceive an actor based on the choice of roles they take. At Spahn Ranch, it all comes into focus: the audience knows and sees Brad Pitt is a movie star so, even though he's surrounded by hippies and in danger, the audience never doubts Cliff could whoop those hippies' asses. And that comes to pass in the film's finale.

In real life, the Manson Family breaks into Sharon Tate's home on Cielo Drive and murders her as well as her three friends staying there. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood brings events right up to the precipice of that grisly tragedy and then inserts an X-factor the real world didn't have: Rick Fuckin' Dalton! In a brazenly bravura action sequence, a very inebriated Dalton and a very high-on-acid Cliff run afoul of the four hippies Manson sent to kill Tate and violently dispatch the hapless interlopers while reaffirming their tried-and-true friendship.

Thus, Quentin Tarantino rewrites history for the better because in his universe, one of the seminal tragedies of 1969 Hollywood never occurred, while he simultaneously reaffirms the power of movie stars. What's more, Dalton's Old Hollywood ended up saving the life of Tate's New Hollywood, while never quite realizing he did so. At the end of Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Rick finally meets his next-door neighbor Sharon, opening the gate to possibly getting his dream role in a Roman Polanski picture. With that, Quentin Tarantino closes out his fantastic and fantastical dreamland version of 1969 Hollywood - one of his all-time best films - on an unexpectedly uplifting note of hope.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Crawl

CRAWL

** SPOILERS **

Apex Predator All Day

"I never thought it'd end like this," Kaya Scodelario tells her father Barry Pepper in Crawl. No doubt. How could she ever think she'd die in a watery basement eaten by alligators during a Category 5 hurricane? That's a very specific way to die but in Alexandre Aja's Crawl, that's exactly the life or death scenario Scodelario and Pepper find themselves in. Crawl is a perfect storm in more ways than one: beyond just the hurricane, which has caused floods and broken levees in South Florida, it's beyond unfortunate Pepper's house is right next to an alligator farm. Going up against one gator would be bad enough but there are multiple gators in Crawl, each hungry for Scodelario and Pepper's limbs - and they definitely get their licks in.

In Crawl, Scoledario plays a swimmer for the University of Georgia, Gainsville swim team. She's estranged from her father but goes looking for him when a hurricane hits and she finds him unconscious and badly wounded in the filthy crawl spaces of his basement. Unfortunately, Pepper's not alone: there are two gators down there too, with more on the way. That's it, that's the movie - Scodelario and Pepper have to somehow survive as the storm gets worse and worse, flooding the town and turning it into a gator party. Within this simple premise, a father and daughter reconnect and go to extremes to survive. They don't necessarily make it out with all of their limbs intact. They also have a dog, a wonderful pup named Sugar that the filmmakers wisely don't use as gator feed. Mostly a two-person and one doggo show, Crawl has a few extra characters who the gators make mincemeat out of. Meanwhile, Scoledario is in nearly every scene and she's a champ whether she has a medal for swimming or not.

Unlike sharks, the basic factoids of which have seeped into the collective unconsciousness ever since Jaws and the annual Shark Weeks and Sharknados, Crawl takes advantage of the fact that most of us don't really know a lot about alligators (I sure don't). Besides the obvious basics like avoiding the jaws, the ins-and-outs of fighting gators are a mystery, as Scoledario finds out when she dodges a gator's snapping mouth but gets whacked in the face with its tail. We wonder whether a gator attacks because its visual acuity is based on movement, like a T-Rex. And we're not exactly sure if a champion swimmer like Scoledario can swim faster than a gator - but it's fun finding out. The gators act like movie monsters when they need to and come out of the water for jump scares, but they also stay in the shadows when necessary to effectively build tension. 

Crawl starts off a bit like a crawl but then ramps up nicely. Pepper and Scoledario both get bitten quite a bit and are badly injured throughout the movie; it's probably not as easy to shake off multiple gator bites as they both make it seem and, in reality, they likely should both have bled out and died from their nasty wounds. There's one moment where a gator clamps onto Scoledario's arm and takes her on a death roll but at that late point in the film, Scoledario has been bitten so many times that she just takes it in stride as she tries to reach a flare to electricute the gator with. 

Overall, considering how Pepper, Scoledario, and the other actors and crew must have spent weeks in a wet, cold, filthy set, everyone comes out of Crawl looking like champs for their total commitment. Especially Scoledario, who holds the movie together with determination and gusto; she even has to swim through rancid water with her eyes wide open which should earn her an award of some sort just for being a great sport. Crawl is as good a father-daughter v alligators movie as you could ask for. And Crawl could even be a segment from Batman V Superman; when Scoledario and Pepper are on top of their house waiting for help, if they'd drawn a giant S shield on the roof, Superman probably would have shown up hovering over them.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Aladdin

ALADDIN

** SPOILERS **

Hold Your Breath, It Gets Better

"The monkey knows the way," Aladdin (Mena Massoud) tells Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) as they both escape the palace guards after them, and anyone who has such loyal friends as Abu the monkey and the Magic Carpet is well worth knowing. Director Guy Ritchie's dazzling Aladdin brings the classic Disney cartoon and the splendorous fictional Arabian world of Agrabah to life in all its vivid, colorful glory. This is a nearly miraculous production full of endearing charm, genuine wit, and eye-popping beauty, starting with its two leads and their meet-cute: he's an orphaned thief who's dismissed as "riff-raff" and a "street rat" while she's an intelligent and headstrong princess forcibly sheltered in the palace since the death of her mother. They're both stunningly attractive, clearly into each other, and they obviously belong together. "You should be Sultan," Aladdin later assures her and it's clear that when all is said and done, Jasmine will not just rule Agrabah but Aladdin's heart as well - and he'll thoroughly enjoy being ruled by her for the rest of his days.

We all know the story: the malevolent Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) wants to be Sultan but he needs the power of the Genie (Will Smith), who lives in a magic oil lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders (voiced by Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron), to make his evil wish come true. Jafar kidnaps Aladdin, the "diamond in the rough" and the only person allowed to enter the cave (although Abu goes with him so the magical cave is clearly okay with a monkey tagging along). Inside the Cave of Wonders are treasures and riches beyond imagination, unless you're Scrooge McDuck or Smaug, in which case, you're familiar with piles of gold coins you can swim in. But there's also the lamp, which Aladdin retrieves, which means he's now the master of the Genie and the Three Wishes he can grant.

Following in the late Robin Williams' footsteps as the Genie is a daunting task but Will Smith rises to the challenge with a performance that's funny, razor-sharp, and unexpectedly emotionally moving when it counts: he's both exasperated mentor and supportively loyal friend (reluctantly at first) to Aladdin as he turns the street rat into the fictional (fresh) Prince Ali of the even more fictional kingdom of Ababwa - complete with Smith leading a musical number accompanying Prince Ali's arrival in Agrabah that brings the house down. But there's a key difference with this Genie: he's all man too and he has the hots for Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine's eligible handmaiden who is quite interested right back. But the relationship between Aladdin and the Genie is sharply-written and poignant, especially when Aladdin ultimately delivers on his promise to free the Genie so he can live a normal life.

With a clever screenplay by Ritchie and John August that adapts the classic cartoon but also adds a few interesting new touches - mainly modernizing Jasmine with a fierce independent streak, progressive worldview, and a new, ultimate destiny - Aladdin astoundingly hits all of the high points of its beloved magic carpet ride. The costumes, sets, and production design are spectacular and,  thankfully, Scott is a powerful vocalist who belts out her part of "A Whole New World" and has an additional new song all her own. Meanwhile, Massoud is a charming Aladdin while Abu and the Magic Carpet are each remarkably loyal and endearing sidekicks. Ritchie's Agrabah is a sight to behold: a wonderous, immersive kingdom that should be its own Disney theme park. Although Kemzari's version of Jafar is a different flavor of sinister from the cartoon that takes a little getting used to and perhaps Gilbert Gottfried not voicing Iago the parrot is a bit of a letdown as well, even then, the movie just clicks and delivers genuine pleasures. Happily, Aladdin is a gorgeous fantasy and a new fantastic point of view of one of Disney's best fairy tales.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

** SPOILERS **

In Spider-Man: Far From Home, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) goes to Europe in pursuit of "Peter Tingles". He gets them, in more ways than one. Director Jon Watts' sprawling and entertaining follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming is also the 23rd Marvel Studios film, the final film of MCU Phase 3, and a sequel to both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (whew). That's a lot of weight to put on Spider-Man's slender shoulders, Spider-Strength or no. As such, before Peter and his school chums from Midtown School of Science and Technology, including his trusty man in the chair Ned (Jacob Batalon) and MJ (Zendaya), the girl he has the Peter Tingles for, get to go to Europe, there's some MCU admin to get out of the way. Far From Home handles this irreverently, looking at the events of Thanos' mass genocide from the teenagers' point of view: the Decimation is now called 'The Blip', the dead Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Vision) are memorialized with a video set to Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You", and everyone wants to know if Spider-Man is going to take the late Tony Stark's place as the next Iron Man and the leader of the Avengers (if the Avengers are still even a thing). 

Of course, Peter Parker can't just go on vacation, especially when the world is threatened by Elementals, other-dimensional monsters made of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Not long after Peter and his friends land in Venice, the city is attacked by the Water Elemental and Peter encounters Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), a new superhero who no one seems to notice is wearing the most ridiculous costume ever, complete with a fishbowl helmet. The Italian news dubs Beck 'Mysterio' and he takes a shine to the moniker (a lot more than Peter does to Spider-Man's European name: Night Monkey). Soon, Peter is recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to help Mysterio save the world from the Elementals. Oh, Beck is from another dimension and the Elementals destroyed his world and now they've come for Earth. If that story sounds like horse shit, congratulations, you've got [insert your first name here] Tingles! Thing is, Peter doesn't want to join in on this world-saving crusade; even though it's been 8 months since he's been to space and fought two Thanoses from two different time periods, all he wants to do is go to Paris and tell MJ he has the Peter Tingles for her.

Meanwhile, even though Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is dead, Iron Man lives on in his tech and the late Avenger bequeathed his protege Peter a new toy: his favorite sunglasses, which contain E.D.I.T.H. (Even Dead I'm The Hero), an A.I. that gives Peter access to Stark's entire network of weaponry, including killer drones he can launch from Stark satellite. Peter doesn't know what to do with E.D.I.T.H. (besides accidentally use it to kill the kid who also likes MJ) and he dumbheadedly hands the tech over to Beck, playing right into his hands. For you see, Mysterio is not who he appears to be! Beck is actually a disguntled former Stark employee heading up a cadre of disenfranchised fired Stark employees and they all hold a grudge against Tony. Mysterio wanted E.D.I.T.H. to manufacture an Avengers-level threat so he can swoop in and become Earth's new Iron Man. Beck explains this in the movie's best scene: a hilarious speech of pure exposition where Gyllenhaal chews the scenery as he gleefully explains his master plan even though everyone in the room already knows it. But once Peter realizes he's been bamboozled, he throws all hope of his vacation aside to stop Mysterio.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doubles down on everything that worked in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There are more scenes with Peter and his endearing gang of buds, plus their goofball teachers, and there's just heaping amounts more of everything, to the movie's detriment. Even before they're revealed as illusions, the Elementals are letdowns as villains since, as giant water and fire monsters, they're not enemies Spider-Man can fight with his tried-and-true weapons of webs and punching. While Far From Home zips along through gorgeous European locales like Prague, Berlin, the Netherlands, and London, it feels overstuffed when the movie could have been leaner and meaner. Whereas Spider-Man received a new Stark Tech suit in Homecoming, now he has a half-dozen costumes. And while he was mostly operating alone in Homecoming, now he's got tons of help, from MJ, Ned, Nick Fury, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who happens to be dating Peter's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). And while it seems there's no problem Spider-Man can't solve with enough Stark Tech, Peter does Spider-Man-up in Far From Home and the film addresses his Spider-Sense, making him earn one of his classic superpowers so it ends up being the difference-maker against Mysterio's incredible illusions. All the while, Holland easily plays an immensely likable Peter Parker, Gyllenhall is a dynamite Mysterio (I wish there was even more of him in the film), and the whole gang give Americans a good name all over Europe.

There are also big surprises in Spider-Man: Far From Home and the ones with the most ramifications for the future of Spidey and the MCU come at the end. Far From Home's final minutes finally bring Spider-Man to the familiar concrete jungles of Manhattan so that Tom Holland's webhead now swings across the same cityscape that his predecessors Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield did. (Only this time, MJ hates swinging along with Spidey, unlike her predecessor Kirsten Dunst.) After four films (counting the Avengers movies) of the MCU's Spider-Man avoiding the tropes of the Maguire and Garfield films, Spider-Man truly comes home to New York City - and he's hit with a double shock: the return of J.K. Simmons as (a bald) J. Jonah Jameson, who then reveals doctored footage left by Mysterio exposing Spider-Man's secret identity to the world. In the words of May in Homecoming's final seconds, "What the fu--?!?" And this is before the big Skrull reveal that seems to set up Captain Marvel 2. So despite Spider-Man's NYC homecoming in Far From Home, he's now in unfamiliar territory with the whole world knowing Peter Parker is Spider-Man. You might say it's a Brand New Day for poor Peter Parker.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Yesterday

YESTERDAY

** SPOILERS **

Danny Boyle's Yesterday posits an alternate reality where The Beatles never existed, which turns out to be both great and terrible news for Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Mostly terrible, really. Jack, a struggling musician living in Clacton-on-Sea, UK, is run over by a bus during a global blackout that lasted for 12 seconds. When Jack comes to, he soon realizes that no one understands the Beatles references he drops, nor do his friends recognize the song "Yesterday" when he plays it for them. Panicked Google searches soon reveal the stunning truth: somehow, the blackout wiped The Beatles from history (among other random things like Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and Harry Potter). 

From this wacky high concept, Boyle and his screenwriter Richard Curtis hang a sweet, awkward, but frothy story of a man who is nothing particularly special seizing the opportunity to pretend that he is the sole author of some of the greatest rock songs ever. At first, Jack performs and records the Beatles' music just to preserve them but soon, the magic of the Beatles' hits lands him TV spots, which leads to Ed Sheeran himself showing up at Jack's door to invite him on tour. Poor Ed is exceedingly jealous of this nobody who somehow writes and performs songs that are instantly legendary, and Jack is quickly scooped up by an L.A.-based record label. Jack's record deal comes with a new, ball-busting manager (Kate McKinnon), but this means Jack has to leave behind his previous manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who has unrequitedly loved and supported Jack since they were classmates together in 2004. 

While Yesterday is an unabashed lovefest for the Beatles and their music, the film is clever enough to recognize and poke fun at the fact that those songs are from the 1960s and come off as dated in 2019. On one hand, "Let It Be", "Yesterday", "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", etc. remain as powerful as ever, but they're from an entirely different era, which is what makes them refreshing juxtaposed against today's heavily sampled and remixed pop music. And yet, some of the film's best jokes come at the expense of the Beatles' eccentricities: the album titles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band makes no sense and The White Album comes off as racist. Ed Sheeran also insists "Hey Jude" would be better and more contemporary if it was changed to "Hey Dude". McKinnon also hilarously (and correctly) sizes Jack up as "not attractive, out of shape" i.e. not a rock star. However, the novelty of one man supposedly writing and performing so many incredible songs in such a short period of time rockets Jack Malik to global stardom, but the guilt of being a complete fraud rips his soul apart, as does his realization that he also loves Ellie, who can't join him on this journey and has moved on romantically.

Boyle and Curtis wisely don't explain the hows and whys of the new reality, nor do they go into detail about the whereabouts of the surviving Beatles, and this lets them drop a huge surprise in the third act when the last Beatle anyone expected to see turns out to be alive. This leads Jack to finally listen to his conscience and tell the truth about being a fraud but, fortunately, he's not a fraud about loving Ellie. While James and Patel share an easy chemistry and she is at maximum Lily James-level charm, but Yesterday itself isn't Danny Boyle at his Danny Boyle-iest - the director only fleetingly dips into his bag of distinct cinematic wizardry. Rather, Boyle lets the actors and the music of the Beatles carry the load, and it all fuses into a lovely climactic montage of Jack and Ellie's life happy life together set to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da ". While Yesterday isn't quite all it could have been, it packs enough irreverence, joy, wit, heart, and music that you recognize its deficiencies but just let it be.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Anna

ANNA

** SPOILERS **


"I work for the KGB, baby," Anna Poliatova (Sasha Luss) snarks to KGB chief Olga (Helen Mirren) at her job interview, but the truth is she doesn't want to. A former junkie and aspiring entrant to the Russian Navy (like her dead Soviet sailor father), Anna was recruited by Dracula Alex Tchenvok (Luke Evans) because she fits the profile for Hot Blonde Female Assassin in an Action Movie. And, since Anna looks like a fashion model, et voilà! She is both! As part of her deal, Anna must spend 5 years (1 in training, 4 in the field) serving her country as a government-sponsored assassin so the KGB sets her up with an ideal cover as a model in Paris. Anna books jobs, she has a Parisian girlfriend named Maud (Lera Abova), and when a shoot wraps, she jumps in a car, takes out a target, and reports her mission status to Olga via payphone. It's a great life but Anna hates it with a passion. She hates being a model and hates being a killer. What's option C for Anna?

Luc Besson's Anna is a stylish, efficient, Cold War assassin's tale. Set in 1990-1991, with flashbacks to 1985, 1987, and 1988 (the film keeps circling back onto itself to explain its various twists and turns), Anna's dangerous world of glastnost keeps her very busy. Though she's a reluctant killer, Anna is highly trained and can take out a room full of soldiers all by her lonesome without any type of superpowers. But what she really wants is to be free and not have her destiny dictated to her by men or women doing the bidding of their governments. Anna's dream is to go to Hawaii and live in the idyllic image of the postcard her father once brought home and stuck on their refrigerator; when she returns from a vacation in St. Tropez, she gives a similar postcard to Olga, who pretends she isn't touched by the gesture. Olga can't and won't make retirement in Hawaii happen for Anna - but the Americans can.

Enter The Scarecrow Leonard Miller (Cillian Murphy), a CIA agent working a long range plan of vengeance against the KGB. In 1985, the new KGB chief, Vassiliev (Eric Godon), asserted himself in his new position by executing 9 CIA agents in Moscow and sending their heads in boxes back to Miller at Langley Gwyneth Paltrow-in-Se7en-style. Five years later, Miller catches onto the tall, foxy, blonde killer the KGB has installed in Paris and sets a trap for Russia's best honeytrap. Anna then becomes a double agent, informing the CIA of her KGB-sponsored activities. Meanwhile, Miller personally walks into Anna's honeytrap himself, unaware that Anna has also had a longstanding relationship with Alex, her man in Moscow. The odd lover out is poor Maud, who is frozen out by Anna and kept totally in the dark (although why Anna remained in her cover in Paris after she eliminated the target she was sent there for in the first place remains a mystery). Soon, Miller makes Anna an offer she can't refuse: kill Vassiliev for him in retribution for the 9 heads-in-boxes and Miller will send her to Hawaii (though she can't pick which island). 

What results is an engaging spy thriller held together by the solemn but sincere charisma of Sasha Luss, who is a real-life former Russian model discovered by Luc Besson. Luss's Anna is ably supported by the acting firm of Mirren, Murphy, and Evans, three skilled veterans who make this whole enterprise work. While Anna is a B-movie, it's a sexy and entertaining one that includes a terrific montage of Anna's assassinations set to INXS' "Need You Tonight" and some amusing Eurotrash caricatures who evoke the over-the-top drama queen Chris Tucker played in Besson's The Fifth Element. Amidst the violence, there are indeed a few laughs, like Miller having to give a green light to Anna chopping off the index finger of her target. But the best joke in Anna is right before she kills Vassiliev during a game of chess: the old KGB spymaster compliments Anna on her successes and notes that usually, the KGB doesn't hire beautiful women like her because they cause problems. "That's why we hire the ugly ones," he explains, before adding, "Speaking of Olga..." Obviously, Vassiliev never saw Excalibur and how hot Helen Mirren was - she gave Anna a run for her money back then. Ask Merlin.

Dark Phoenix at Screen Rant

DARK PHOENIX AT SCREEN RANT

Dark Phoenix is the final X-Men film of the Fox era. The X-Men saga has lasted for 19 years and I was there since day one. In the long buildup to Dark Phoenix's release, I've been fortunate to write a lot of Screen Rant Features about the film and the X-Men franchise as a whole. Here they all are collected below:















Thursday, June 6, 2019

Dark Phoenix

DARK PHOENIX

** SPOILERS **

"We're all that's left, the last of the First Class," Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) tells Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and we feel the significance of how long these X-Men have known each other and how long we, in turn, have known them. Though you'd never know it by looking at them, Mystique and Beast, along with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), have known each other since 1962. They are indeed the last of X-Men: First Class, which rebooted the X-Men saga into a new continuity. Like the four X-Men founders, writer-director Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix is the last of this quadrilogy of films and also the last of the 19-year saga of X-Men movies from Fox. It's both a continuation and a finale about endings, rebirths, and... evolution. The film strains and teeters under all of that weight and it never truly takes flight (it tries but can't quite). And yet, it's still a pleasure to be with these X-Men after all of these years.

While it seems so on the surface, Dark Phoenix is thankfully not a retread of X-Men: The Last Stand. Instead, it feels like a glorified TV episode, which is both a good and bad thing. Good because at least it strives to be Peak TV and hits some of those dramatic notes; bad because it still feels undercooked and it could be grander, but it isn't. What is here, though, is rather interesting. We know the beats of the Dark Phoenix Saga story by heart, even if you've never read the comic: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is a powerful mutant psychic with a tragic past (in this telling, her powers caused the death of her mother when she was 8) who is imbued with a cosmic force from outer space that she can't control. The Phoenix Force (though it isn't called that) feeds on her rage and trauma, which was kept in check by psychic walls secretly built by Professor X, and transforms her into a malevolent, god-like being. The X-Men try to bring her back to the Jean they know and it ends in tragedy.

Dark Phoenix's first act is its best: the year is 1992 (though you'd never know it from the fashion or music) and the X-Men are beloved, rock star superheroes on call from the President of the United States. (Xavier even has an X-Phone hotline to the POTUS.) When the space shuttle Endeavor is damaged by a solar flare, Mystique leads her team of X-Men, including Beast, Jean, Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) into space on a rescue mission. The X-Men save the astronauts but Jean is struck by the solar flare, which is actually the cosmic Phoenix Force. Instead of dying, Jean's powers grow "off the charts" and the walls in her mind Xavier built come crashing down. The cool thing about all of this is seeing something we've never seen before: the X-Men outright loved by the public. They get a standing ovation from the young students at the Xavier School and they even have a party in the woods with Dazzler (Halston Sage) as the entertainment. Meanwhile, Xavier soaks up adulation with all of the false modesty he can muster at a black-tie gala. All of this is accompanied by a groovy Hans Zimmer score that alternates from heroic bombast to eerie foreboding as the Phoenix grows Dark. 

Mystique and Charles have been friends since the 1940s but they've never really seen eye-to-eye. She thinks his lifelong patriarchy and ego-trips (she even calls out the sexist "X-Men" name) will lead to disaster - and she's right. He argues that he's finally achieved his dream - humans trusting mutants and regarding them as heroes - and he's also right that mutants are only one bad day from becoming public enemy number one again. That day comes immediately when the newly Dark Phoenix-ed Jean escapes the X-Mansion; she realizes that Xavier has lied to her for 17 years and that her father is actually alive. Just like in The Last Stand, there's a confrontation at Jean's childhood home and an X-Man dies, but this time it's Mystique, whom Jean kills (and not accidentally). Jennifer Lawrence's reluctant but heroic shapeshifter dies with a whimper and this splits the X-Men apart, with Beast blaming Xavier since they are two of the three men who have loved Mystique since 1962. 

Meanwhile, Jean seeks out the third man who loved Mystique: Magneto, who now runs a mutant refuge on the island of Genosha. Unlike Ian McKellan's Magneto, who wanted to seduce Dark Phoenix into his Brotherhood, Fassbender's version doesn't want anything to do with Jean. But someone who does is Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of shapeshifting aliens called the D'Bari, who lost her whole planet to the Phoenix Force. Vuk plays the role of seducer to Jean, offering to teach her how to control her power, but what she really wants is the Phoenix Force itself, which she is somehow also strong enough to absorb. The movie is unclear about how Vuk can also be its host, but Vuk doesn't mince words that she doesn't care about humans and she wants the Phoenix Force so the D'Bari can take over our planet. The whole thing ends with a mutant brawl on a block outside Central Park West, which leads to all of the X-Men captured on a train by the US Military, which then leads to a big train fight between the X-Men and the D'Bari where Jean fully evolves into the Phoenix Force. Unlike the comics or The Last Stand, Jean doesn't die. Rather, Dark Phoenix fulfills the original voiceover by Patrick Stewart's Professor X in the first X-Men movie: "Mutation. It's the key to evolution." Jean transcends her mortal form and embraces her destiny as a cosmic being. While it doesn't quite stick the landing, it's still a better ending to this story.

Just as Charles argued in favor of Jean despite the chaos she caused, I would argue that there is a lot of good in Dark Phoenix. There's more intimacy between Tye Sheridan's Scott and Sophie Turner's Jean than there ever was between Famke Janssen's Jean and James Marsden's Scott (it's easier when there's no Wolverine at all in Dark Phoenix). Cyclops even drops the F-bomb - "I will fucking kill you!" - at Magneto. Alexandra Shipp's Storm also has more to do and is a better fighter (and lightning thrower) than Halle Berry's version, while Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler is the MVP and has some cool action moments - the X-Men could not have accomplished anything in this film without his BAMFs. Alas, Evan Peters' Quicksilver is short-changed; Dark Phoenix doesn't attempt a three-peat of the superspeed rescue sequences set to a pop song that were memorable highlights of X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. However, there's a clever reversal of one of McKellan's signature quips: "You homo sapiens and your guns!" This time, Fassbender's Magneto uses a trainful of guns as weapons and opens fire on Vuk.

As the centerpiece of the film, Turner has much more inner turmoil to play and she digs deep. Also - this is important - no X-Man has to save Jean as she can save herself, thank you very much. Still, Jean isn't exactly a witty conversationalist and she doesn't have much of a personality, whether or not she's malevolently powerful. Dark Phoenix ends not unlike The Dark Knight Rises, with Charles Xavier retired in Paris and Magneto still looking to play his old friend in a game of chess. It's a low key and muted ending to the grand, messy, but weird and wonderful X-Men saga, but Dark Phoenix also contains a meta-joke for the X-Men's future: when the military captures the X-Men and transports them to the Mutant Containment Unit. The X-Men didn't make it to the MCU in Dark Phoenix but they'll get there regardless soon enough. And when the next evolution of the X-Men begins in the MCU, we hope it'll also be first class.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

** SPOILERS **

Roland Emmerich's Godzilla 1998 is still the worst American-made Godzilla movie, but Michael Dougherty's Godzilla: King of the Monsters makes a hearty bid for that crown. Unlike Emmerich, the new Godzilla gets the monsters right, at least, but both films are populated with humans that deserve to go extinct. While Emmerich leaned towards bottom-feeding 1990s sitcom archetypes for his characters, Dougherty's film is populated by complete idiots who think they're smart but no, they're complete idiots. Here is the human cast of Godzilla: King of the Monsters: Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler), Norman Bates' Mom (Vera Farmiga), the Kid Who Does Whatever She Wants (Millie Bobby Brown), Godzilla's Biggest Fan (Ken Watanabe), the Lady Who Likes Sea Monsters And Is Killed Offscreen (Sally Hawkins), A Clown (Thomas Middleditch), A Clown Who Voted For Obama (Bradley Whitford), Ice Cube's Kid (O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), the Asian Lady No One Knows Is Twins - Or Do They? (Zhang Ziyi), and Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance). Except for Tywin, they all work for Monarch, a secret organization with unlimited resources that collects giant monsters (now called Titans) like Pokemon - gotta catch them all! Monarch's mission statement is "Discovery and Defense in a Time of Monsters" but their real playbook is "Let Godzilla Do Whatever He Wants. Godzilla Is Always Right" because, apparently, he is.

After the attack on San Francisco in the 2014 Godzilla that killed Norman Bates (Honolulu was destroyed in that film too, but no matter), Norman Bates' Mom invented Orca, a sonar device that can 'talk' to the monsters and calm them down, apparently. Like Homer Simpson, she stages a phony kidnapping by Tywin Lannister and his unnamed mercenary group to get to the Monarch Antarctica outpost. There rests Ghidorah, the giant three-headed dragon, and for some reason, Bates' Mom thinks releasing him and then all of the other Titans is the best way to save the planet from climate change. She reveals her innermost thoughts to her ex-husband Coach Taylor and the rest of Monarch in a preposterous speech and after hearing it, the Kid realizes her mom is fucking nuts. In this movie, the monsters and their radiation are the planet's natural line of defense. Bates' Mom spouts some weird hippie shit about humans and monsters living together in harmony (amidst the ruins of our smashed civilization?) and it's not even clear whether she believes it or not. No matter, because it doesn't take long for her to realize she's an idiot, but it does take her a lot longer than it took me.

Once Ghidorah is released and Godzilla is unable to stop him, the dragon is revealed to be an alpha among the monsters that rivals Godzilla himself. The other Titans start waking up to meet the new boss, who's not the same as the old boss. There are at least 17 other monsters in this movie and we see a lot of them but the Big Four are Godzilla, Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. All of the monsters start wrecking cities all around the world but Monarch has a plan: let Godzilla handle it. The US Military has a different plan - kill them all - and it's a good plan but they also fuck it up. Admiral David Strathairn announces the military has a new weapon: an oxygen destroyer missile that can kill anything that breathes oxygen within a two-mile radius. They fire it at Godzilla and Ghidorah in the ocean; it doesn't work on Ghidorah because it's an alien dragon, but it doesn't kill Godzilla either. But the oxygen missile does kill millions of fish, despite the fact that fish don't breathe oxygen. This is that kind of movie.

Oxygen destroyers are stupid anyway because along with a giant undersea base and a super jet, Monarch has nuclear weapons, which they apparently have authority to use whenever they want without clearing it with anyone. In their nuclear sub, Monarch chase Godzilla and find out the Hollow Earth theory pitched in the vastly superior Kong: Skull Island is correct: there are massive tunnels beneath the surface connecting the whole planet and that's how Godzilla gets around. In fact, there's even an ancient Godzilla City deep, deep under the sea. Godzilla went back to take a nap and recharge but Monarch decides he's taking too long so they decide to launch a nuke at him to speed things up. When they realize they have to literally hand deliver the warhead to Godzilla - a one-way trip - Ken Watanabe volunteers and no one tries to talk him out of it. Bradley Whitford says he'll miss it when Ken says "Let them fight!" even though he wasn't in the last movie the one time Ken said it. No matter, Watanabe brings the nuke to Godzilla and says "Goodbye, old friend" as if they're old friends and Godzilla knows or cares who he is. And another thing: he's deep in the Earth's core, where it must be blazing hot, but Watanabe just removes his gloves and helmet and he's fine. It's the same when everyone is in Antarctica (average temperature - 49 degrees Celsius or -120 degrees Fahrenheit for us dumb Americans) but they all walk around with no hats and their heads fully exposed. Not to mention the radiation of the monsters and the nukes - everyone in this movie should have radiation poisoning, cancer, or worse but they can't help touching the monsters like the teenage girl did the Brachiosaur in Jurassic Park.

Back to the Kid, who gives her mom a big FU by stealing the Orca. This kid just takes the device, which is left unguarded, and strolls out of a secret bunker crawling with armed mercenaries and then walks miles on foot to Fenway Park in the middle of a Boston under emergency evacuation. Her crazy mom, Tywin, and the mercenaries don't realize the Kid is gone until she's already at Fenway blasting the Orca on their loudspeakers, which the Titans can apparently hear no matter where in the world they are. The Orca draws Ghidorah, who was hanging out in Washington D.C. for some reason, to Boston, and yet, this lightning-shooting three-headed dragon the size of the Hancock Tower can't kill one stupid kid. Monarch arrives with Godzilla, and Mothra and Rodan also join in the fatal four-way match, but the movie is much more concerned with Coach Taylor and his crazy wife finding their dumb kid, who went home to her townhouse because it's "safe" there, I guess? (It isn't.) Meanwhile, Godzilla is supercharged with nuclear radiation and Bradley Whitford announces he'll go thermonuclear in 12 minutes, then six minutes, but it takes a lot longer than that for Godzilla to blow. By then, Norman Bates' Mom driving a Humvee has led Ghidorah on a merry chase around Boston while the rest of Monarch escape in an airplane where they leave the rear hatch wide open the whole time, giving them a nice aerial view of Godzilla's nuclear explosion destroying Boston and killing Ghidorah. But it's fine because you can just be a few thousand feet away from a nuclear detonation and no worries, you're all okay.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is so immensely stupid that the monsters bowing to Godzilla at the end - Rodan, a giant pterodactyl, even knows how to genuflect and practically does a curtsy - almost seems normal. In the end, Monarch is exposed as a Keystone Cops operation that's even more dangerous and out-of-control than the monsters and it's an outfit where a drunk ex-football coach and his boneheaded teenage daughter can just do whatever the hell they want and this one family is more of a threat to the safety of the world than the Titans are. So, sure, let Godzilla be king of the world because Godzilla knows best, but as for me, let me off this crazy fucking planet.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM

** SPOILERS **

The best line in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is spoken to John Wick (Keanu Reeves) by the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui): "I've never seen anyone fight so hard to end up right back where he started!" The Elder, the only man above the High Table, which is the international consortium of assassins John Wick works for, has a point. You'd think with this third John Wick movie, the franchise is about to wind down the story of John Wick but you don't title movie number three "Parabellum" (i.e. "prepare for war" in Latin) if you're looking to put a cap on things. No, by the end of John Wick 3, John Wick isn't at his wick's end; rather, he's got an even bigger war on his hands.  

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum kicks off immediately after the events of John Wick: Chapter 2. The titular black suited killer and dog lover committed a cardinal sin of the assassin's creed and killed an Italian mob moss in the Continental Hotel, which is supposed to be a safe haven for killers. Winston (Ian McShane), the hotel manager, made John Wick "ex-communicado", placing a $14-million bounty on his head. Now on the run, John Wick has to get out of NYC as hordes of multinational assassins come to collect. The first act of Parabellum sees John Wick fighting off assassins while nonsensically leaping around New York City from Chinatown to Queens with no regard whatsoever for geography. No matter, because Wick is trying to get out of Dodge and he returns to his roots, the Russian mafia, where he got his start as Jardani Jovonovich, "a child of the Belarus". John uses up his last favor with the Director (Anjelica Huston) and is sent to Casablanca.

Meanwhile, an Adjudicator from the High Table (Asia Kate Dillon) arrives to clean up the unholy mess left behind by John Wick that's made a mockery of the noble profession of assassination. She lays down the law that the High Table is making some changes and both Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of the New York underworld, are going to be replaced. The Adjudicator is a force to be reckoned with and she's a big step up as a villain for this franchise. For muscle, she recruits the local cadre of Japanese assassins headed by a wild-eyed and charming Zero (Mark Dacascos). Zero is a big John Wick fan, as are we all, so he's eager to test his skills against the top dog.

In Casablanca, John meets up with Sophie (Halle Berry), another career assassin who goes way back with him, and they run afoul of the High Table's dapper Morocco chief Berrada (Jerome Flynn, who is the second Game of Thrones alum in this franchise after Alfie Allen's dog-murdering baddie in the first film). Speaking of Game of Thrones, Sophie is also a dog lover who fights using two highly-trained German shepherds as her wingmen and their shootout in Casablanca is spectacular. In fact, in one ten minute sequence alongside John and Sophie, John Wick 3 outdoes 8 seasons of Game of Thrones' direwolves combined in terms of dogs fighting alongside humans. But it all has to come back to the Continental for a final showdown between John Wick and the Japanese, where the Baba Yaga lays waste to Zero's entire fighting force before their mano e mano showdown in a tower of glass. 

All throughout, John Wick 3's spectacular action is more thrilling and novel than before, with eye-popping choreographed fights and far more variety of colorful and opulent kung fu fighting and kills than the previous film's overreliance on mere gunplay. It's all held down by Reeves' understated and steely charisma. All told, Parabellum is the most rollicking John Wick entry thus far. And, as the Elder summarized, John Wick fought so hard to end up right back where he started, once more on the run from even more assassins trying to kill him. For all of the guff the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets for being one long episodic TV series, the John Wick franchise is even more blatant of that. This movie's title should really have been John Wick: Chapter 3 - Prepare For 4.

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