Showing posts with label 2017. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2017. Show all posts

December 27, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)

Daisy Ridley's Rey wields Luke's lightsaber in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

It's a fascinating time for the Star Wars franchise. Despite huge box-office receipts for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, some naysayers are questioning its long-term future. Critical and audience response has been very positive, but a vocal group of fans has spewed vitriol about certain story choices. In particular, the depiction of Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker and some new Jedi powers have drawn scrutiny. A lot of the anger is silly because it's so hyperbolic. On the other hand, that doesn't mean all of the issues should be tossed aside. Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) has crafted a film that's brilliant, daring, and quite divisive. I love the fact that fans are having tough discussions about this new chapter.

I was a little behind the curve and caught up with The Last Jedi this past Friday. I managed to avoid spoilers and entered the theater mostly cold beyond the basic elements. This led to a fun and surprising experience that kept me on my toes. I really liked the movie overall, though a few choices didn't stick as strongly. A big selling point for Johnson's film is the fact that I want to see it again as soon as possible. So much happens within the 152-minute running time, so I need more time to digest it on a rewatch. Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver are all excellent, and the two young actors shine in developing their characters beyond The Force Awakens.

My full review of The Last Jedi was just posted tonight on my other blog at The Tomorrow Society. That site focuses on theme parks, especially Disney, so it made sense to write about that studio's blockbuster film on that blog instead of here. If you're a fan of Disney World and other theme parks, you should also check out my other blogs and podcasts on that topic. Regardless, I'd love to hear what you think of my reactions to The Last Jedi. You can check out that review by clicking here.

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June 20, 2017

The Fourth Kingdom and the American Myth

The Fourth Kingdom depicts life at the "Sure We Can" redemption center.

Amid today’s onslaught of claims about illegal aliens and dangers to a blurry concept of traditional “America”, it’s easy to bypass the human side. We can hate the fearmongering by power-hungry leaders, but what about the people it impacts? Taking a breath and looking closer is hard to do sometimes. In their short film The Fourth Kingdom, Adán Aliaga and Àlex Lora accomplish that by depicting a small group of people at the Sure We Can recycling and community center in New York. They depict individuals of different races and backgrounds, and each one has a unique story.

It’s easy to tie everything to a discussion of Trump’s policies, but there’s no need to make it blatant. With the exception of a brief shot of the President on TV (before the channel changes), there’s no direct mention of him. Even so, his presence hangs over each scene. When a man speaks about the difference between labeling people as “illegal aliens” instead of “immigrants”, it brings us right back to the hate speech. Hearing him speak about walking to the border without any planning is striking. A later shot of the guy going to bed in extremely cramped quarters says plenty. He came looking for the “American Dream”, but what he found instead was something less inspiring.

I shouldn’t focus too much on the political aspects; that’s more of a backdrop than the focus. The residents of this center largely seem content and aspire for a better life. One man spends his time chatting with a friend and wondering about theories like God's involvement in The Big Bang. It’s the type of conversation that you’d expect to hear among friends at a park or coffee shop. Another guy has a personal goal of acquiring 2,000 bottles, and the process makes him happy. He spent 3-4 years at one point living in the streets, so finding a purpose is so important.

Aliaga and Lora find inventive ways to avoid using just a fly-on-the-wall style. One slow-motion shot of a beer bottle opening is beautiful in its simplicity. They also use audio from a vintage promo about plastics throughout the film. That overly positive look at the artificial substance mirrors the way the dream has been diminished for some residents. Plastics took hold of our culture during the post-war era of the ‘50s and connect to the rise of the American myth. The bags of plastic have their own charms, but they also reveal the leftovers of a wasteful society.

While the narrator describes the “dream of the future”, shots of heaping bags of bottles and cans tell a different tale. Stories about alcoholism and homelessness drive home the point that we’re a long way from that idyllic dream. This kingdom of plastics offers respite for people that are barely hanging onto hope. They’re just living day to day and working tirelessly to stay afloat. The Fourth Kingdom finds peace in their efforts, despite the difficulties of each day. It’s a brief glimpse at a world on a separate plane from the grand claims of politicians. Those leaders are stuck in the fantasy described by the deceptive narrator while life continues in the world around them.

The Fourth Kingdom is currently playing the festival circuit, including the Palm Springs Film Festival on June 21. It also recently won the Best Short Documentary award at the Brooklyn Film Festival. Learn more at the official website.

June 5, 2017

The Fun and Importance of Wonder Woman

Gal Gadot stars as Diana in the Patty Jenkins movie Wonder Woman.

What more can be said about Wonder Woman? It’s already become a blockbuster hit, which is thrilling given the intense focus on its success. In the world of Trump, an extremely rare superhero movie with a female director takes on much greater meaning. Far-right trolls were just waiting for Wonder Woman to fail. Instead, Patty Jenkins’ new film is closing in on box office records. I took my daughter to see it on Saturday, and it was heart-warming to observe such a diverse audience. She’s eight and maybe a little too young for some parts, but I decided it was worth it because of how uncommon it is to have a female lead in a superhero blockbuster.

Looking beyond the cultural significance, this isn’t the most impressive summer slate for big-budget movies. Logan was a surprise hit back in March, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 did monster business. Plenty of other wide releases have failed, and there are candidates for a similar fate on the way. Wonder Woman was hardly a surefire hit, but positive word of mouth and the lack of much competition helped its cause. It’s also an entertaining movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a welcome change to see a movie that doesn’t feel loaded by its franchise. There are no extra scenes in the credits that tie in to other films. With the exception of brief references to Bruce Wayne, there’s little mention of other parts of this comics universe.

The highlight is a glorious action scene that reminds me of why I love movies. The sequence begins with a gloomy look at the horrors of trench warfare, but that’s really just a set-up to let Diana take matters into her own hands. When she stands up and fights, the stark difference between this moment and other gloomy DC superheroes is remarkable. She’s facing down a storm of bullets and actively changing the narrative. Without malice or anger, Diana blazes across the battlefield and inspires the troops behind her. This scene culminates in a nearby village with Diana using a makeshift trampoline and blasting through a tower to stop a sniper. It’s such a fist-pumping moment that it’s hard for anything to match it the rest of the way.

This sequence epitomizes the difference in direction and tone for this movie. The stakes are still high yet they never weigh down the audience. The main reason is Diana herself, who can’t help but be a hero. Gal Gadot perfectly embodies the self-motivated, powerful force that no one can stop. She’s graceful in the action scenes in a way that doesn’t feel like a CGI trick. There’s also a glint in Gadot’s eyes that reminds us that what we’re watching should be fun. This tone carries over into the quieter scenes, which offer laughs and heart that were definitely missing from Batman v. Superman. Jenkins’ direction rarely pummels us, and the screenplay from TV vet Allan Heinberg doesn’t hammer the obvious themes.

This fresh take is evident in the “fish out of water” scenes in London after Diana leaves her island home of Themyscira. She arrives in a man’s world, but we don’t see too many one-note caricatures of sexist villains. A subtle comment from Diana comparing secretaries to slaves is a lot more effective than boorish enemies. The men in Parliament are bewildered by her arrival, and that says plenty. Diana’s lack of decorum is played for laughs but not at her expense. She’s the extraordinary person in a world that has a long way to go. We still do.

This restrained approach works because it’s unexpected in a big-budget superhero movie. It’s also fun to just spend time with the characters, particularly Diana and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). There’s also a fun turn from a nearly unrecognizable Lucy Davis (Dawn from the British version of The Office) as Steve’s assistant Etta. The scenes in London complement the action and keep it grounded. There are plenty of fireworks to come, but that means little if we don’t want to join the trip. Taking a breath and then starting the next journey is so important. The deft pacing is what helps the story avoid losing steam after its opening act on the island. There’s still a little too much of the kitchen sink in the final act, but it takes a long while before we reach that point.

The opening act could easily fall prey to exposition syndrome, but it never falls into that trap. It helps to have Robin Wright as the fierce military leader Antlope and Connie Nielsen as Diana’s mom Hippolyta. Both sell dialogue that could be silly in lesser hands. It’s easy to see what Diana is giving up by leaving this paradise. The film’s 141-minute running time is a little bloated, but the cuts shouldn’t come from this section. It’s necessary to understand Diana’s world and why she’s initially confused by the different culture. It’s also a gorgeous place that doesn’t seem like just a CGI creation. A director like George Lucas would have piled on over-the-top scenery and creatures and lost the reality. Jenkins doesn’t fall into that trap and creates a believable location.

Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) are less thrilling as the two main villains. They’re the typical one-note characters (especially Ludendorff) who mainly exist to give the hero someone to battle. The saving grace is that we don’t spend that much time with them, but that makes their defeat seem less uncertain. The final battle includes a surprise twist, though it’s telegraphed due to Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters. That moment adds some depth to the conflict, yet it starts to fall apart when the scene keeps going and going. It’s a minor quibble in a very entertaining movie but dulls the final impact just a bit.

What sticks with me about Wonder Woman is the excitement in seeing a modern blockbuster that works as a classic adventure. Gadot and Pine have good chemistry as a pair, and their connection does not distract from the plot’s forward movement. The World War I setting builds a sense of place in a similar way to Captain America: The First Avenger. Both don’t have to create fake countries or grim cities to sell their narrative. The war also makes the horrible acts of the villains feel more natural. It’s not that much of a stretch from the trench warfare that actually occurred. Diana’s powers stand out but don’t overwhelm the other characters’ struggles.

I’m thrilled to see great success for Wonder Woman, which does more than validate an entertaining film. I can’t overstate its importance to the larger struggle, especially with Jenkins as the director. There’s still a long way to go in multiple realms, but this is a major step in the right direction. Trolls can gripe about all-woman screenings and spew hate, but they look even more ridiculous now. It’s sometimes hard to stay positive with a madman leading the country and terrible news each day. The achievements of a blockbuster film might seem trivial, but they make a difference. Young girls like my daughters will see a role model like Diana on the big screen and believe they can be heroes.

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May 19, 2017

The Bone-Crushing Brilliance of Logan

Hugh Jackman stars in Logan, the latest Wolverine film from James Mangold.

We’ve spent considerable time with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in six X-Men films and two past solo projects, yet there’s still more to mine with this character. In the latest incarnation in Logan, he’s a middle-aged guy slumping through a dreary life. He’s well over 170 years old, but who’s counting? The title character drives a limo and transports partying youngsters and other patrons through an oblivious world. This 2029 resembles our time, and it’s a sad place when seen through Logan’s eyes. Mutants have largely disappeared, which makes him a lost soul.

There’s a definite western vibe to this film, particularly once Logan returns to a dying Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) south of the border. This bleak landscape matches the depressed Logan’s outlook on life. He’s basically a weary Tom Doniphon watching civilization take hold. It’s no coincidence that James Mangold uses Johnny Cash over the closing credits. Logan is a true outsider that only sees the danger and violence surrounding him. Most of his friends (and apparently his love Jean Grey) are dead. He’s just moving slowly towards a sad end.

Parts of Logan resemble a post-apocalyptic film, especially the giant abandoned plant where an ailing Charles and his caretaker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) live. It’s easy to view this place as the next step in our ugly Trump-led world. We see working-class people and immigrants struggling while an abusive band of Reavers kills without a second thought. There are superhero elements to this low-key story, but they never overwhelm the connection to present-day life. It’s easy to sympathize with Logan’s emotional disconnect from everything around him.

Making Logan a mentor for the young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen) is a standard plot trope, but the script from Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green dodges the obvious beats. Logan doesn’t magically find meaning in life through his fatherly connection and initially dismisses her. It takes a lot to get him to make the trip to North Dakota with Laura (also known as X-23). He also has little choice once Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and the vicious Reavers arrive. They’re interested in reclaiming their property and will kill any obstacles along the way.

Mangold tackled similar territory in The Wolverine, particularly with Logan struggling to overcome past trauma. I enjoyed the more serious take, particularly during its first hour. This film doubles down on that approach and works even better due to the R rating. There are many brutal stabbings and other grim violence, but it sets the right mood for the material. The fights are visceral and cruel, especially when innocent people end up in the crosshairs.

One lesson to grab from this film is to never help Logan. When Will and Kathryn Munson (Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal) invite him for dinner, they’re doomed to tragic deaths. Next time, Logan might want to warn kind people that he’s being chased by violent enemies. The way that the X-24 wipes out the Munson family (and their teenage son Nate) reminds us of this world’s unflinching cruelty. Created from Logan’s DNA, the X-24 has the skills but not the emotions. He’s basically the Terminator from the first film, not the friendlier Arnold from later projects.

There are quite a few connections between this film and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. There isn’t an impending apocalypse here, but the atmosphere of doom is quite similar. Like John Conner, the mutant children are looking to escape from forces that would seek their destruction. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is technically human, but his face is devoid of emotion. He’s a monster that has no compassion for anyone, particularly mutants. The bleak desert environment also matches James Cameron’s world of T2. Even before the world explodes, people already live off the grid.

I don’t want to undersell the thrills; there are quite a few action scenes, and most are very effective. The violence is right in your face, and Mangold doesn’t cut away before the killing blows occur. Viewers accustomed to the Marvel framework may not be ready for this level of bloodshed. There’s little security for anyone on screen, even our title character. Villains nonchalantly kill innocent bystanders that get in the way while pursuing their top prize. Few will survive unscathed during the ugly, difficult march to freedom.

Logan follows the classic road movie structure and finds room for character drama within the 137-minute running time. Unlike a bloated project like Batman v. Superman, the extra space here is refreshing. Jackman, Stuart, and newcomer Keen all give strong performances within this airy framework. It makes the final act more powerful because of how much time we’ve spent on the road with this trio. This resonance should bring staying power to this film beyond its original release. It’s a fitting end for Wolverine and a perfect swan song for Jackman in the iconic role.

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May 11, 2017

Bosch: Season Three Review

Titus Welliver and Jamie Hector star in Bosch.

The Refreshing Mundanity of Bosch

In this era of peak TV, there’s no way to keep up with every must-see series. Who has the time to follow everything? Netflix and Amazon release new original shows every few weeks, and there’s no end in sight to that trend. Looking beyond obvious studs like The Leftovers and Better Call Saul, there are other solid stalwarts that deserve more recognition. These quiet successes carve out a comfortable niche yet are often lost behind the leaders. A perfect example is Amazon’s cop series Bosch, which keeps churning out effective seasons every year. The show’s willingness to meander helps it avoid the traps of most network police series.

Titus Welliver stars as the title character Detective Harry Bosch, a veteran cop that draws the ire of both criminals and fellow officers. Many of them spend the episodes spitting out a frustrated “BOSCH!” while dealing with the difficult guy. One reason is that he’s a skilled detective who’s rarely wrong. Police leaders and district attorneys don’t like being told they’re idiots by the detectives. Bosch is not a Vic Mackey type that skirts the rules, however. He often gets in trouble because he’s so concerned about doing the right thing. When he bends the rules, it’s usually in the name of catching the bad guys. Bosch may look the other way if it punishes evil.

Bosch is adapted from the long-running series of novels by Michael Connelly starring the title character. Beginning with The Black Echo in 1992, Connelly has written 21 books that feature the hard-nosed homicide detective. I have not read the source novels, so the TV series is all new. Given that each season pulls from multiple books, it’s easier to approach the stories from a fresh perspective. Connelly is directly involved in the show and co-wrote several episodes. I suspect that the tone matches the book, especially given the series’ slow-burn approach.

A Promising Start

The first season does a great job introducing the main character and his world. The L.A. environment feels lived in, even Bosch’s cool apartment overlooking the city. There are cases to solve but also time to enjoy local eateries and spin jazz greats at home. Bosch enjoys a low-key camaraderie with his partner Jerry Edgar (Jamie Hector, Marlo from The Wire), Lieutenant Grace Billets (Amy Aquino), and fellow officers in the Hollywood Division. The sets also seem genuine without drawing too much attention and include subtle details that add to the charm.

The downside of season one is the focus on a serial killer that feels drawn from a lesser show. Jason Gedrick (Iron Eagle) tries his best to make Raynard Waits interesting, but there’s no mystery there. The potential remains because the cast is so good, especially Welliver in the lead role. The silent intensity in Bosch’s face says plenty about the determined officer. He’s still haunted by his past, especially the murder of his mother when he was 11. Bosch controls his emotions to focus on his police work, and it takes a toll on personal relationships. Everything clicks except for the main story, and the much-improved second season fixes those issues.

What makes season two succeed are the greater stakes for everyone involved. It also is less ponderous than the grim first outing. The arrival of Bosch’s daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz) and ex-wife Eleanor (Sarah Clarke, 24) brings levity to everything. Villainous supporting turns from Jeri Ryan and Brent Sexton also give Bosch and Edgar more to play against. Lance Reddick sometimes feels like he’s on another show as Deputy Chief Irving, and he also gets more directly involved here. There’s even a Matthew Lillard sighting as an undercover FBI agent! This season builds on the solid foundation and delivers across the board.

Titus Welliver stars as Harry Bosch on the third season of Amazon's Bosch.

A Confident Third Season

We’ve finally reached the main topic of this article — Bosch’s newly released third offering. Amazon dropped all 10 episodes onto their streaming video service on April 21st. They have already renewed the show for a fourth season, so this won’t be the last time we see Bosch. We ended the previous season with Bosch spitting on the grave of his mother’s killer, and that cynicism remains from our lead detective. He’s berating the DA in public, squabbling with his partner, and performing some questionable detective work. Even so, the moral center remains as part of this quest for justice. Bosch is still trying to be a good father and catch the bad guys.

While this season’s villains lack the flair of the previous one, there’s still plenty to enjoy with the intersecting cases. Armin Vosloo (aka The Mummy) is so obviously evil from the start, and he knows how to play the arrogant henchman. Less effective is film director and murder suspect Andrew Holland, played like a complete fool by John Ales. The real excitement comes from watching the great Paul Calderon pursue Bosch as the relentless Detective Robertson. He seems more dangerous than the ex-military operatives led by Dobbs (Jeffrey Pierce). Robertson correctly senses than Bosch isn’t telling the whole truth, but he’s wrong about the specifics.

By this point in the show, I just enjoy spending time with these characters. Billets’ application for captain doesn’t connect directly to the main plot, but it’s still interesting because we root for her. Irving spends the season finalizing his divorce and deciding whether to take the full-time role as chief. It’s obvious from the start that he’ll accept it, but this thread remains interesting for two reasons. First of all, the quiet sadness on Reddick’s face reminds us of the loss of his son. Irving is gruff and rarely shows emotion, yet he still works as a character. The other reason is the set-up for events in future seasons involving the death of Bosch’s mother. The writers know how to play the long game, especially when it comes to emotional scars from the past.

Madison Lintz stars as Maddie in the third season of Bosch.

Spotlighting Everyday Scenes

Bosch was developed for television by Eric Overmyer, who was a producer and writer on Homicide: Life on the Street during its final two seasons. They’re quite different shows, especially due to the Los Angeles and Baltimore settings respectively. What made Homicide so unique was its mundane look at the life of a police detective. No car chases or shootouts occurred, at least in the early years. Bosch has a brighter setting yet also shows the less glamorous side of police life. Characters spend time on stakeouts, doing paper work, and waiting for the right opportunity. Shootouts and chases happen, but they’re still rare.

Beyond the main plots, it’s the low-key moments that stick with me. The writers find time to show Bosch teaching his daughter to drive and watching her play volleyball. There’s also a new romance with the Deputy District Attorney Anita Benitez (Paola Turbay) that mostly works. In a strange way, it’s the lack of a dramatic break-up that makes their scenes click. They just drift away in the midst of an ugly case, and then it’s over. Bosch is a nice guy but not what you’d call a warm person. His reputation in the department also might not be best for her career. The workplace politics grounds this show in reality and keeps it from losing focus.

An important benefit of understanding the characters is the increase in stakes when things go wrong. When a major character is seriously wounded by a sniper, it’s not a cheap trick to enhance the drama. The show has laid the groundwork to make that moment connect. We’ve also seen the skills of the villains, so there’s a true sense of danger when they strike. Despite some dissension between Bosch and other cops this season, that slips away when a threat emerges. Robertson suspects Bosch of not being on the level, but he also has a begrudging respect for his skills. That uneasy alliance comes together in an interesting way.

Paul Calderon and Amy Aquino star in Bosch.

The Thrills of the Slow Burn

Welliver’s slow gait makes Bosch seem less imposing to suspects that don’t know any better. When the action heats up, his precise moves remind us of his Special Forces training and sharp instincts. The way that he dodges an approaching car and then shifts into attack mode is a perfect example. There’s no wasted effort or over-the-top histrionics. The show essentially functions in the same way. Regular directors Ernest Dickerson and Alex Zakrewski both shot multiple episodes of The Wire, and they understand how to shoot action scenes. Shootouts are brief, brutal affairs that get to the point quickly.

Bosch’s third season concludes with an epic one-on-one pursuit on a gorgeous island that gives Bosch a chance to show his skills. It also extends the case of his mother’s murder into surprising territory. Those revelations should lead to significant conflict in the fourth season. The ominous final shot of Bosch’s face tells us all we need to know about his next target. Each season finale leaves enough threads open to keep us engaged, but they never feel like a cheat. This effective storytelling is consistent throughout the season and makes Bosch worth a serious look.

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