Sunday, December 27, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: the Force Awakens

Movie: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega

Verdict:  While beset by enough pacing issues to be more than a little distracting, the long-awaited continuation to George Lucas’ seminal space opera delivers on almost all of its pregnant promise, providing great action, spectacular cinematography, and a bevy of charismatic faces both fresh and familiar in a more-than-worthy addition to the canon.

In depth:  Long ago in a movie studio far, far, away, George Lucas brought forth through the darkness of Early Seventies science fiction a new hope: an unprecedented sci-fantasy epic trilogy that influenced an entire generation of fans and changed the course of film making forever.  The original Star Wars trilogy wasn’t just a movie series - it was a life experience, and even after thirty plus years, it still lives on in the hearts of adoring fans all these decades later.  While the ill-conceived prequels a few years back put a bit of tarnish on an otherwise spotless memory jar, devotion to the original trilogy hasn’t waned one bit, and would ignite a fervor among all Star Wars geeks when Disney announced that it will be continuing Lucas’ beloved saga with a “proper” sequel.  Despite my initial slight reservations, I’m quite pleased to say that The Force Awaken lives up to nearly all of its hype, being both a pleasing tribute to the nostalgia block, and a fun, classic sci-fi adventure through and through - in no small part due to the brilliant cast, epic scope, and timeless but powerful message laying at the heart of this resurrected franchise.

It opens in classic Star Wars fashion - throwing the audience right in the middle of a new conflict between the insidious First Order, a totalitarian successor to the evil Empire who plan to dispose of the New Republic and spread their new twisted order throughout the Galaxy; and the aptly (if unimaginatively) named Resistance, protecting the new Republic.
Star Wars: making evil look awesome for 40 years
   Luke Skywalker - eternal hero and Jedi Grandmaster - is currently MIA, and with him gone, all hope rests on the shoulders of his sister Leia, now general of the Resistance.  From almost the outset, we’re thrown into the action, with the nostalgically in medias res kicking back to the old series. At the risk of spoiling those of you not familiar with the beaten-into-the-ground Jungian hero's journey after - oh - a hundred years, the story revolves around the search for the legendary savior of the Galaxy by both sides of the moral divide, bringing a host of planets and a few wanderers into the crossfire.  This is a critical establishing point; The Force Awakens rides on its power to compel the audience into the mythos - but this time, with new characters and a new direction.  Spurring on this gear shift is the film’s relentless action, always a hallmark of any good hero's epic.  However, it bears noting that this was not, as so often the case, merely a cheap ploy to distract the audience with big explosions; the film’s substance never faltered, and the plot’s furiously kinetic pacing did nothing to detract from it.  Filmmakers, take note: this is how you tell a compelling story without easing up on the octane one bit.  Rarely do I get “pumped” for  frantic action, but this movie pulled it off just right.

The cinematography and effects went a long way towards making The Force Awakens so compelling without overwhelming the audience.  David Mindel has an acute sense of scale, and made everything seem so much bigger - and the actors, by extension, much smaller - that we could help but stare up in awe at every downed Destroyer, every derelict and ruin, we come across. 
Think it could use a jump?
 While part of this can obviously be attributed to the march of movie making technology over the past 40 years, most of the credit belongs to the creators and their decisions - one of which, ironically, was deciding to not go “high tech.”  One frequent complaint of the prequel series concerned the conspicuous use of CG.  The Force Awakens take a different path, showing scale models whenever possible, and the movie felt smoother and much more organic because of it.  Shielded from the paralyzing sheen of a computer-generated superficiality, we're free to focus on the phenomenally plotted story, only contending with the effects when they have real plot relevance.

Such a strong story demands strong characters, of course, and the film definitely  provides, letting its new roster additions crawl their way to the heart of it.  I must admit that the trailers teased my expectations quite a bit, and while the difference between what was and what I thought would be left me somewhat disappointed, it by no means took anything away from my enjoyment.   John Boyega and Daisy Ridley were the stars here, or course, with the former’s portrayal of ex-Stormtrooper Finn (aka, FN-2187) being particularly noteworthy.  Though Boyega entered this role relatively untested and swaddled in a storm of racial controversy, all doubts faded before the layered performance he brought to the screen.  Although the trailer lead me to believe that he’d be the centerpiece of a redemption arc from darkness to light, we instead get a funny, engaging young traitor, one endowed with a perfectly blended balance of cowardice and courage who carries a significant portion of the early film on his shoulders.  Finn provides impeccable humor without becoming “that comic relief guy,” all due to Boyega’s perfect timing and the surprising depth he brings to the role.  Counter to nearly every other character in the mythology, Finn isn’t initially a rebel or a resister, but someone who suffocated under the oppression of the First Order to such an extent that he’s ingrained the despair and hopelessness so common to the dregs and tools in a totalitarian system.

Of course, Finn shares the spotlight with an equally fascinating, and in some ways more important, character - Rey, played by the up-and-coming Daisy Ridley.  Rey could have easily been a Luke clone - and honestly, that wouldn’t have been a bad thing.  However, Abrams and co. wisely injected a touch of mystery to her background, giving her more leeway in how quickly she "develops," so to speak.  Rey is plucky, driven, and subtly idealistic without being self-conscious, and the strength Ridley breathes into her transcends any element of age or gender, putting her on par with the best hero archetypes of old.  While there are a few cringey elements of "stop helping me!" in her early interactions with Finn, the pair eventually develop a close mutual devotion that will hopefully remain at the platonic level for the duration of the series.  Though Finn took the lion's share of my attention for most of the film, Rey's past, her possible intriguing connections, and her potential in the future will definitely be on everyone's minds in next installments.

  I had more mixed reactions to Kylo Ren; though played by a charismatic Adam Driver and blessed with a surprising amount of depth and humaneness, his arc felt pretty rushed, especially compared to the gradual unfolding that happened to Darth Vader.  I understand that a lot went on behind the scenes during the first trilogy that affected how events turned out, but that doesn’t excuse The Force Awakens and its several anomalies in an otherwise perfectly-paced movie.  Finn and Po Dameron - the handsome ace Resistance pilot played by Oscar Isaac who effectively kicked off the plot - bond alarmingly fast, though their brief relationship feels sincere and heartfelt.  There is a lot of talk concerning Rey’s shockingly rapid growth in just one film - fast enough to let her duel evenly with a trained, experienced Jedi like Kylo Ren.  I’m more forgiving on this front, since the extenuating circumstances of the climactic fight and Rey’s mysterious past are enough to make it more-or-less plausible, but it seemed like the filmmakers rushed her grasp of the Force just a bit too much. 

 But the biggest hiccup conerns how the older characters are utilized - or, well, not, depending on how you see it. Though both Han and Leia were welcomed, as always, their inclusion didn’t leave as big an impact as it could have.  This is particularly true for the old smuggler; his presence lacked context, and his relationship with the two new stars was pushed a little too hard, too quickly.  
"You say 'fanservice' like it's a bad thing."
These problems, through relatively minor compared to the overall experience, was enough to make me scratch my head and strain my willingness to believe on more than one occasion.

But these concerns are barely a ripple on the pond when the film’s looked at as a whole.  More than a few pacing issues, The Force Awakens will be remembered for the strong characters, thrilling action, and tightly-woven plot - easily on par with anything Lucas could have made at the very peak of his ability, and arguably the best this series has produced since The Empire Strikes Back.  Abrams definitely delivered the goods in this one, and when Rey, Finn and the rest set off to continue the second leg of their journey, I’ll be ready right along with them, anxious to see where and how this saga will end.

Grade: B+

Friday, December 18, 2015

Magic of Humanity: Examining Miyazaki


Proof that a casual stroll through the backwaters of YouTube can result in something more than rage and frustration.  I discovered a great,16-minute documentary spotlighting one of the masters of Japanese anime - Hayao Miyazaki.  For anyone not in the know, Miyazaki is the mastermind behind such phenomenal and well-known animated films as My Neighbor Tortoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, among many more.  This little beauty gives a careful, almost loving analysis of his vision through the minute details of his many acclaimed works.  You can watch the whole thing down below, but just a few key points that I thought were critical for any budding animator or film maker to know:

  1. When designing a character, focus on “internal subtlety” over action or quirks. According to the video, Miyazaki eschews both the barren emotional landscape of most Western animation, and the cheap over-expressiveness endemic in modern anime in order to craft real, empathetic entities onscreen.  As a corollary, realize that the best creators are also the best observers of people.  
  2. Honestly, just focus on the character period.  Everything should center on your characters: what do they want?  What drives them?  What are their flaws?  And, most important of all, how have they grown by the end of their journey?  With good characters, the plot will take care of itself.  Also, Miyazaki wisely draws the distinction between a character’s wants, and his or her needs; learning to discern one from the other - and letting go of the former while embracing the latter - is often THE hallmark of growth.
  3. Never, EVER underestimate the primacy and power of mood.  Mood can change a landscape, making it feel much grander or smaller that you’d expect; or it can provide a subtle window into a character's thoughts, emotions, and state of mind.  Mood and feeling is extraordinarily difficult to peg down and communicate verbally (indeed, the distinction between a good writer and a bad one can often be made based on observing who is or isn’t so foolish as to undertake such a futile attempt) but that’s okay.  The inexplicability of emotions is what gives them their greatest impact.

There’s a lot to criticize in the presentation, but it’s still a fine window into one of animation’s most engaging minds.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

December Releases

 December Releases
It's new release time once again, and this month's loaded with lots of cool movies that are bound to...
Hah!  Nope, couldn't say that with a straight face.  Sorry - it ain't happening.
 Let's get this out of the way right now: we all know this month's pretty much about one thing, right?  Like - I don't know - a certain movie that starts a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away?  Ring any bells?  Yes?  Good.
In all seriousness, the new Star Wars flick is the movie event of month, if not the entire year - nothing else even comes close.  Some fans have been waiting damn-near thirty years for this, and the circus surrounding it - for better or worse - only seems to grow the closer we get to ground zero on the 18th.  That said, there are some rather interesting non Star Wars things happening this month across mass media: 
May the Force be with you!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Music Review: 25

Album Review

Adele - 25

Release date: November 20, 2015
Label: XL Recordings

Summary: The powerful songstress from Tottenham is back in full force, and though her homage to moving on in late adulthood isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as it could have been, Adele’s undeniable vocal strength shines in every somber, soulful track.

Four years ago, Adele’s cathartic and solid album 21 erupted onto a totally unprepared music scene like a belting volcano, drowning her contemporaries in the sheer majesty of her voice and the strength of her plaintive lyricism.  Riding the Contemporary R&B wave, this blue-eyed soul singer swept the 2012 GRAMMY Awards, netting a record-tying 6 awards, including Artist of the Year.  However, instead of following-up immediately on her phenomenal success, Adele took a three-year hiatus from the music biz, breaking only to compose the Academy Award-winning “Skyfall” for the eponymous 2012 James Bond film.  The drought finally ended with the release of the breathtaking “Hello” in late October.  The reaction was overwhelming, with the song practically lionized by the music industry as the official music video racked up over 400,000,000 views on YouTube in less than a month.  So with all this outpouring of praise and anticipation, does the final product live up to the hype surrounding it?  Well, yes and no: yes, in that the vocals and sincerity are as superb as one would expect from Adele, but it often sounds indistinguishable from previous efforts, the promise of cap-stoning her musical Bildungsroman never quite materializing in most of the tracks.

The lead single “Hello,” of course, needs not introduction, setting the tone of the album and ultimately standing out as its most powerful song.  This classic ballad drips with regret over a failed relationship, appearing to all the world as the mature follow up to her signature “Somebody Like You.”  But beyond its poignant message is Adele’s commanding vocal range, stretching across multiple cords, all in tune with the piano’s melodic rise and fall.  “Hello” is that rare song with the power to carry an entire album on its own, and if everything else in 25 had been sub-par, it would be worth getting the album just to hear this searching ode in its full, uninterrupted glory.

Still, while the musicianship on the album is a testament to Adele’s continuing maturity as an artist, its content still sounds like more of the same.  Tracks like “Send My Love,” with its upbeat, almost popish rhythms, and the somber, reflective “When We Were Young” hit all of the right notes - and heartstrings - but will undoubtedly feel very familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity of her corpus.  This isn't a bad thing, mind you, as Adele’s stratospheric vocals are nearly immune to anything mediocre.  But with the glimmer of lyrical maturity hinted in “Hello,” I’d hoped that the British songwriter would show a bit more inventiveness, especially with an array of talent as diverse as Bruno Mars, Paul Epworth, and Danger Mouse all contributing to the production.  “A Million Years Ago” is probably the most original track on the record - a calm, Spanish guitar lamentation, punctuated by Adele’s piercing voice at certain emotional peaks, that reminisces on the price of fame and its effect on those who knew her.  Otherwise, 25 is a retread over the same territory forged by 21, and while a few songs like "River Lea" and "Water Under the Bridge" stand out, respectively, for their striking imagery and retro 80s tempo, there's nothing fundamentally adventurous here, and only the most attentive fans will spot the subtle differences between the two albums.

That shouldn’t stop anyone from giving 25 their full attention, though.  Adele is without doubt a once-in-a-generation talent, and while those looking for the much-vaulted maturity this album promised may leave disappointed, fans of this modern siren’s soulful wails of lost love will definitely find reasons to celebrate.

Grade: A-

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Movie Review: Spectre


Movie: Spectre
Directed by: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux

Unapologetically cliche and gloriously “old school,” the 24th official entry into the Bond film canon doesn’t promise anything groundbreaking, but while it strays into cinema no-nos at times, it still packs enough humor, action, and old-fashioned charm to bring Craig’s run as 007 to a fun, if unimaginative, conclusion.

In depth:
I confess that I've never been much of a James Bond fan.  Far be it from me to deny anyone else their own vicarious pleasure, but I didn’t fall in line with the peculiar brand of wish fulfillment Ian Fleming’s magnum opus had been selling over the decades.  Although Skyfall, with its masterful score and surprising intellectual force, certainly coaxed a bit of interest out of me, I never saw Spectre as one of my “must sees” for this November.  I stormed the movie theater blind, having no expectation,s really, other than the sense that I’m in for an action-packed, meat-headed power fantasy.  And I was right - but as it turns out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Though weighed down by a plethora of minor weaknesses and a startling lack of originality, Spectre by and large delivered a fun, frenetic experience, with the expected charm and strength Daniel Craig commands as 007 on full alert, giving us more than our money’s worth.

We first spy our hero in usual Bond style - trailing an apparent evildoer through a spectacularly rendered Dia de Muertos celebration in Mexico, but not before giving a random woman (and honestly, aren’t they all random?) his obligatory token of affection before heading back out on the case.  What follows is a chase through the crowded Mexico City streets, culminating in our hero clashing with his quarry on a spinning helicopter above the sprawling.  This is where the classic, inordinately-long Bond entrance kicks in, but we’re already given an eye-opening view of what’s to come.  Daniel Craig, of course, stand strong as the supreme spy, indulging in the usual “Bond perks,” without losing one iota of his unflappable manner and surprising wit.  His responses to the random and often humorous happenings in his immediate surroundings - like falling on a conveniently placed couch while a building around him collapses, or pulling a gun-point interrogation on a mouse sneaking into his room - come off as natural and somewhat understated, avoiding the pitfall of overindulgent goofiness.  Every actor leaves his own stamp in this iconic role, and Craig will long be remembered as a man who meshed both tough guy bravado and effortless charm in a way that hasn’t been seen since Sean Connery graced the screen as “Double Oh.”

The rest of the cast left a bit to be desired, but Craig’s command of his role more than made up for it, and in either case they were at least a touch above “just enough.”  The departure of Judi Dench as M in Skyfall left an unfillable void, since she provided a near pitch-perfect foil to the traditional paragon of masculinity that is Bond.  However, the circumstances of her exit in the previous film did help kick off the current plot, giving a reason (however spotty) for Bond’s presence in Mexico.  Ralph Fiennes takes up the mantle of M16’s head in an admirable but rather textbook performance, playing as if he following a master script of beleaguered bosses, with little nuance or personality - an unpleasant surprise, considering the man’s distinguished background and obvious ability.  Unfortunately, he’s not alone, for if I were to leverage a blanket complaint about the actors as a whole other than Craig, it’s that they seemed simply to go through the motions, adding nothing to their characters beyond the bare-minimum demanded by the weight of what they represent in the Bond Mythos.  The beautiful Léa Seydoux, playing Madeleine Swann, the latest “Bond girl” and daughter of an old nemesis, is virtually interchangeable with any of her Seventies-era counterparts, although her chemistry with Craig is palpable, despite the wide gulf separating their births.  The one notable exception to this is Ben Whishew, who plays M16’s long-suffering but ever-reliable quartermaster Q with a delightful blend of awkwardness and subtle smugness that never comes off as irritating, and actually gives him a more natural rapport with Craig than anyone else in the whole film.

In any other movie, such an admission would be tantamount to a dire condemnation, a character-based foulness in the heart of Denmark, but Spectre avoids the consequences of skimping on the character development by dancing a delicate and difficult line in maintaining the status quo without sliding into staleness and decay.  This impressive accomplishment is owed to a rare triumph of plot over character, cemented by the power of the Bond mythology.  The film’s momentum is driven first and foremost by the setting, and the characterizations, though comparatively thin, at least didn’t leave me wailing and gnashing my teeth.  This balancing act would have fallen to pieces were it not for Craig and his magnetic onscreen charisma, or if his co stars had been less than average; as they stood, I was willing - even delighted - to mostly ignore the actors' shortcomings and dive into the film's manic, high-octane world.

And Spectre certainly sanctifies our good faith, putting the pedal to the metal right from the start, bouncing from Mexico City, to the M16 home in London, and Rome, all while pursuing our film’s shadowy antagonist - who turns out to be none other than Ernst Blofeld, the mysterious mastermind behind the eponymous organization who also harbors a “surprising” connection to our film’s hero.  If it seems like I’m skimping a lot on the details, it’s because I am, but trust me - there's little that can’t be seen from a mile away.  Spectre is a movie held and propelled by a startling kinesis, one that defies easy description. The eternally actified Bond moves through his mission with old school zeal and determination, and must literally be seen in order to be fully understood.  In fact, this very celebration of the “old ways” of doing things speaks out in the side plot running congruent with Bond’s mission: M16, perceived as a relic of old-world spying, risks absorption and eventual dissolution into the Joint Intelligence Service.  This leads to M engaging in dimwitted but relevant ideological battle with the  devil-in-plain-sight leader of JIS, C (played by Andrew Scott), who also advocates a technologically-based global surveillance initiative called “Nine Eyes” that will supposedly replace traditional spies like Bond on the field.  This angle in the story is handled in a maddeningly hammy and meat-headed manner, but it isn’t shoved down the viewer’s gullet, serving only to contrast the (admittedly romanticized) fun and adventure found in Bond’s unrepentantly "classic" style of espionage with the cold, sterile and potentially-abusive threat posed by more “up-to-date” methods.

Just as Spectre succeeds despite its relatively weak characters, it also somehow manages to avoid stumbling over its many other flaws; it goes without saying that there is a lot to pick apart in this film, especially its pacing at some points.  Part of the downside for being such an action-oriented flick is that the stretches between the gunfights and fisticuffs feel that much longer, though I personally didn’t find this to be an issue for most of the movie.  More notable is the polarization strewn from its self-consciously old-school flavor.  The treatment of Seydoux’s character, the blandly avuncular showing by Fiennes’ M, along with the mandatory displays of hypermasculinity, might not sit well many modern audiences - nor, I imagine, would the old-fashioned extended torture sequences that’ll have you screaming “Why don’t you just shoot him?!” at the tops of your lungs.  These are legitimate critiques, and should be weighed in any debate regarding Spectre’s cinema mettle.  However, these disturbances are minor annoyances at their very worst, and the film was so linear in its direction that even the wonky pacing between fight scenes was far less painful than if this had been a less dynamic movie.

I came into this movie as a relative 00-novice, with mostly the older works for my reference besides Skyfall, so I might not reflect the reactions of someone who grew up with or participated in the mythology on a more continuous level.  Still, for all the cliches embedded into its thick-headed veneer,  there is a firm, pitch-perfect action flick pulsing beneath, and one that hardly misses a beat where it really counts.  It may not be the best Bond film ever, or even recently, but as long as you withhold your judgements, its energetic plot will carry you along for one wild ride.

Grade: B

Thursday, November 5, 2015

November Releases

 November Releases

We all know it's that special time of the month again.  There are a lot of big-name releases this time around, like the new Bond movie and the triumphant(?) return of Peanuts to the national consciousness.  On the television front, Aziz Ansari's pilot project Master of None is set to debut on Netflix, as well as AMC's Into the Badlands, a martial arts drama that looks like the bastard child of Mad Max and Lone Wolf and Cub.  And of course, every dedicated RPG gamer on the planet is geared up for the release of Fallout 4 in just a few short days.  With all this and more, November's going to be a very interesting, and very entertaining, month.






See you at the movies! 

Friday, October 23, 2015

Star Wars: What's All the Hubbub, Bub?

We're Back!

I think it's fair to say that Star Wars is, without doubt, a "huge deal."  Uncountable geekdoms were spawned forty years ago from the moment the first interplanetary warship graced the silver screen, and few fictional characters in any medium can boast the devotion claimed by Luke, Leia, Solo, and the rest.  While I never fell deep into it, my sister has been a hardcore fan since the very beginning, and I've always appreciated its role in popularizing the Science Fantasy genre I've relished so much over the years.  So all that said, I confess I didn't think much of the announcement a few years back that Disney was releasing a new addition to the saga.  In fact, I'd say it left me down-right sour.  Between the 30-year gap from the last "beloved" trilogy, the relatively lackluster prequels, and the always-divisive presence of Disney in, well, everything, I hardly imagined there would be any room for longing from even the most devout Star Wars fan - and the relative apathy from my sister seemed to have confirm that.

I couldn't have been more wrong.  There's been mounting anticipation steaming from many quarters over the past year or so, but it was only on the trailer premiere and ticket sale opening this past Monday that I really felt the force of my errancy.  The full trailer has already broken 35 million views on YouTube, and even if most of the outrageous rumors of $700 ticket sales turn out to be just that, their existence speaks volumes about the excitement surrounding this upcoming blockbuster.

Naturally, such fevered expectation invites an analysis of some kind, and though I've toyed with dissecting the trailer to uncover its core, a number of other critics have already done just that, so instead I'll briefly examine just a few of the possible engines driving this surprising surge of Star Wars fanism, despite the setbacks of recent times.

1. The Eternal Return 
As implied by the trailers and the cinema rumor mill, this new iteration of the Star Wars franchise won't merely feature a brand new cast of fresh nobodies that plead us to care about them.  Instead, we've got Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher all making a return, stirring the pot of nostalgia for both long-term followers and those raised on their eulogizing memoirs of escapes into distant galaxies.  Part of the problem with the previous trilogy is that it felt disconnected from everything that imbued Star Wars with meaning, especially the original cast and their idiosyncrasies.  This new movie, therefore, must feel like a "coming home" of sorts for many long-time fans. 

2. Fresh promise
Still, we shouldn't skimp on the new characters entirely; Daisy Ridley and John Boyega will share the spotlight with the "old favs," and if the trailer is anything to go by, they'll breathe fresh life into the franchise, making their own mark in Star Wars history.  Ridley's apparent rendition of the Mysterious Lone Drifter archetype - so common in these epics, but so uncommonly played by a woman - may show her to be the next Luke Skywalker, and Boyega's prominence in the trailer all but cements his arc as one from darkness to redemption, and finally onto heroism.  We won't know for sure what role they play in the greater scheme of things until the final wire, but it's the mystery that's so engaging.  This isn't a fabricated origin story, the conclusion to which is already set in stone; we really don't know what destiny awaits for Ridley and Boyega or the characters they play.  But I'm sure we're all eager to find out.

3. The Hero's Journey
This last point culminates much of the appeal of the other two - and indeed, probably explains the popularity of Star Wars as a whole more than any other individual factor.  Let's face it: however much it's parodied or denied, however much it's criticized and discounted as meaningless through the lens of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell's monomyth has left an undeniable mark on the human psyche since it was first formulated.  Who hasn't wanted to be part of a greater battle between Good and Evil?  Who hasn't wanted to rise from nothing, discover your fate and your place in the world, and make a difference?  While cynical or "mature" minds scorn these fantasies as infantile or even dangerous, their appeal is undeniable and timeless.  Star Wars is Campbell's chanting herald in the movie realm, and the star ensemble so far seems ripe to deliver the age-old goods: a few fresh-faced wanderers - both literal and metaphorical - called to adventure and guided by both Old Masters and old salts.  This is the nexus of Star Wars, the heart and soul of its power, and the trailer flows with all the pregnant possibilities that this new journey can offer.

While I admit that I'm not foaming at the mouth or tossing money at my screen on the return of the franchise after over a decade, I'm a good bit more excited than I was just a few months ago.  Only time will tell if Lucas and co. can deliver on their promise, but Star Wars is sure to be on everyone's minds come the holiday season.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Movie Review: Pan

Movie: Pan
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund

Loud, hammy, and laughably anachronistic, Joe Wright’s unnecessary adaptation attempts to give a “fresh” origin story to J.M. Barrie’s well-known characters, but succeeds only in killing the magic of the original and throwing all charm and wonder to the crocodiles.

In depth:
When approaching an adaptation, one should always keep an open mind and analyze it on its own merits, apart from the original that inspired it.  This is risky, to be sure, as every adaptation carries the potential to be either a spectacular success or a momentous flop, but the fairest and most logical view should be that of neutrality, and a good-natured trust in the filmmaker’s own creative vision.  Unfortunately, this very openness leaves the resulting failure all the more painful, for Joe Wright, whatever his intent in crafting Pan, falls far short of the mark, getting lost in a murky fog of glaring CG and confounding action sequences, and drowned in a hum of overacting, stale deliveries, and bizarre anachronisms in musical choice.  The resulting concoction is a poison to Barrie’s legacy and the movie world as a whole, and though not the worst thing to blight the screen this century, has certainly left the worst kind of impression for both long-time Pan fans and newcomers alike.

The story kicks us off in the most conventional and cliched way possible; a baby left on the steps of an orphanage by his surprisingly nimble young mother, his only link to her, a letter, a piece of jewelry, and the inevitable promise to come back and see him “one day.”  Wright and his crew do away with all pretenses of subtlety and finesse right from the get go; the infant Peter - and by extension, the audience - are given the full “chosen one” shebang - even before the meat of the plot starts to pickle.  This is a lazy move full stop, and can make or break story progression based on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief.  Despite this major slip, the first few scenes of this movie were more or less the best in the entire flick, giving young Levi Miller a chance to flex his acting chops and paint a unique portrait of Peter as a vulnerable yet silently courageous child, sparkling with a surprising degree of charm.  I am sad to say that this is the best development we see of any actor of the film, and despite Miller’s tolerable effort, the overwrought brutishness and ridiculous outfits of the nuns running his orphanage blotted any light the young actor could generate.

Things only went south from there, for after the plot gained a bit of traction and finally sets off, we’re bereft of even the simple joy of Miller’s modest efforts and thrust head first into an unrecognizable Neverland.  Anyone expecting a magical romp through archetypes of boyhood wonder and whimsy are soon disillusioned by a dreary world of industrial mining and forced labor, all presided over by Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, living it up in the hammiest performance I’ve seen him in to date.  I usually enjoy Jackman’s brand of tough-guy machismo blended with whatever is required of the script, but this time, he goes a little too far, wallowing in an overplayed corporate cynicism when he isn’t screaming his lines at the tops of his lungs over the blaring, anachronistic rifts of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit,” courtesy of his collective mine slaves, as the pirate ship ferrying Peter docks to unload its latest human cargo.  

I want this image to sink in for a minute: a crowd of dirty slave miners, most of them children, all cheering as a flying pirate ship makes landfall, and the flamboyantly-dressed pirate king stands dramatically before them...with everyone chanting the lyrics for an alt rock anthem from the 90s.  Never before has a movie scene made me convulse with actual emotional pain, but that’s not even the worst of it.  Regardless of your status as an adaptation and your relationship to the source material, as a fantasy film, Wright’s main mission is to maintain his world’s fragile grasp on the audience’s wonder - and hence, their suspension of disbelief.  I can understand, on some level, why the filmmakers made the choices they had which resulted in the wide-as-a-mountain deviations from the books; the miners, and Blackbeard’s arbitrary rules on promotions and “demotions” (read: executions) are probably meant to mirror the adult world’s drudgery, and set up Peter’s refusal to grow up.  That much is clear, though still a poorly executed waste of potential that fails to factor into Peter’s predestination plot.  However, the Nirvana chorus line has no fricking place in the film whatsoever, and I can’t imagine what, if anything, it was supposed to coax out of me besides my bile.  All it shows is that Wright and company have no understanding of their genre or what it’s meant to convey - an assessment held up as the movie progresses.

After this early nosedive, the story never regains its balance, helped least of all by the introduction of new characters - Rooney Mara as a static Tiger Lily, and of course, Garrett Hedlund’s “rendition” of a young James Hook.  I don’t know what they were going for when they took the suave yet brutal buccaneer and morphed him into a bizarre Indian Jones expy, but even all that aside, it could have worked if Hedlund didn’t drive the Pan Acting School’s theme of shouting your lines in the most exaggerated way possible to the absolute limit.  He was devoid of any depth or pizzazz, as heroic or cowardly as the plot demanded him to be, and was generally unlikable through it all.  To top it off, Pan’s place as an origin story effectively removes any tension or concern over his fate by the end, so we’re stuck staring at him longer than most of us would care to. Catching a glimpse of how Peter and Hook - the archetypal nemeses of modern children’s literature - interacted before they became enemies was my main draw to this film.  However, the dearth of any meaningful interaction between the two, plus Hedlund’s abysmal failure as Hook in general, stripped me of my only real expectation, leaving me lost in Wright’s funhouse horror pit passed off as Neverland.

Beyond these massive stumbling points, Pan has little else to offer its audience.  The CGI was lame and unpleasant to look at, especially during the action sequences, which were all, bar the climactic battle, dull and plodding.   The whole thing left me scratching my head, wondering where the $150 million they apparently spent on this monstrosity actually went.  In fact, exact descriptives of any kind are hard for me to draw up, derivative and just plain boring as this film was.  The hamfisted lessons on childhood innocence and adult duplicity were simple-minded at best, and in either case got lost in the film's many other shortcomings.

This isn’t to say that everything in Pan was rage-inducing; a few of the gags worked, and the final battle was less objectionable than the ones preceding it.  But that’s all to it, really, and even then, some of the continuity-related asides -  like Hook’s fear of crocodiles, or his and Peter’s future as mortal enemies - are told with all the subtlety of a jack-knife to the skull, signalling the filmmakers’ poor grasp of humor, timing - or anything else, to be honest.  Pan isn’t just a “bad movie” - those can at least be enjoyable on some level.  It fails hard in multiple ways: as an engaging origin story for a collection of beloved characters; as a fantasy film, providing healthy escape through the element of wonder; and even, more broadly, as a lesson in storytelling, proving unable to even get the done-to-death hero’s journey right.  While I believe that few things are beyond redemption, Pan’s poor box office returns and total disservice to the very core of film makes the heavily hinted sequel unlikely this side of Neverland.

Grade: F

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

October Releases

October Releases

The first month of the Fall premieres has come and gone, giving us a general sense of how the rest of this season will play out.  There have been a few gems, a couple of duds, and many more I refrain from judging until I see more of what they got. On another note, theater season is back in swing, so between that, the movies, and the continual unfurling of the fall line up, October promises to be an interesting month.






See you at the movies!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Criticism Concepts: Part 2: Critiquing on the right side of the brain


I made a post a few months back outlining what I see as the basic consideration every would-be critic should give when examining a work’s merit - namely, how it affects one on an emotional level.  While the details of our first impressions can get lost in the fog of our mind’s forgotten moments, the emotional impact they have on our thinking usually transcends plain old awareness, so long as the impression is sufficiently strong (and if it isn’t sufficiently strong, well, there you go).  But you’d be wise to ask what, exactly, you’re supposed to do with this new understanding.  You’ve sculpted your gut reactions into something coherent and, dare I say, intelligible; but how do you know what you’re saying is actually accurate in any way?

This is the second pitfall set up to entrap the would-be critic, and it can be the trickiest to avoid. Recognizing it for what it is requires not just a certain degree of work on your part, but also a different perspective than we’re accustomed to using in everyday life.  Let’s say that you’ve just watched the latest blockbuster this weekend, and after two brutal hours, it’s left you colder than a corpse on ice. So, heeding my advice from before, you decide to expand you’re chilly dislike into a solid critique; the film, you now say, is crippled by poor acting, terrible pacing, and a distinct lack of direction.  

So far, so good.  But what does that even mean?  What was it about the acting that made it so poor?  Was the movie paced too quickly, or too slowly?  And if it “lacked direction,” where, exactly, was it supposed to go?  These are legitimate questions, and any director or screenwriter serious about his or her own growth has a right to ask them.  Unfortunately, the answers, even from professional critics, are often vague and discourteous, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of ambitious creators and doing little to adjust the negative opinion most have of critics in general.

It’s not that critics necessarily mean to be tight on the constructive criticism; while there are a few jerks out there who thrive on negativity for its own sake, most critics, in their minds, are simply cutting the chaff to make room for the wheat.  But critics and creators (as well as consumers) see and interpret a work of art in completely different ways. The critic, more often than not, takes the approach of the analyst; their conclusions stem from a process of textual distillation, which can often read like an accountant’s business report.  By about how many degrees of plausibility does this character deviate from “the norm?”  Was this a “proper” setting for the story, or not?  

There’s nothing innately wrong with this, mind you, but the critic should always remember that doing this effectively splinters the work into discrete, measurable quantities that are then evaluated as if they had no connection to one another.  This is completely at odds with how the creator’s vision usually works.  While the creative process may vary among artists and their mediums, “holism” is the one constant through it all; the characters, setting, and other details all swirl together in a tangle that can be very hard to extricate.  The downsides of this are well know, as attested by anyone who’s tried to tell a writer about a pressing weakness in his story he’s just too close to notice.  However, embracing a work holistically enables you to see and measure each segment and each theme with a view towards the bigger picture.  By foregoing needle-point analysis, you gain clarity on how story elements interconnect and simply experience it in a way that touches something beyond the checklist of “proper” story elements.

This is the reason why critics, while often right in their play-by-play assessments, can also be spectacularly wrong on so many fronts.  Quick question: what do Moby Dick, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Big Lebowski all have in common?  They were all originally panned - or at least ambivalently received - by critics at the time of their creation.  If I may paraphrase the great Anton Ego, critics have a tremendous blind spot when it comes to anything new - in large part because “the new,” however it’s defined, cannot be easily analyzed.  Some things can only be experienced, which often involve time and an openness that borders on vulnerability.  It's hard, and takes practice, but your efforts will pave the way for more accurate - and more comprehending - reviews.

So where does the critic go from here?  Keep your analysis at hand, to be sure; but once you get your initial reactions in check, try to step back and piece them together into what you took away from the film as an experienced whole.  A second or third viewing may be desirable, but not necessary; even a first-time blush can offer a wealth of information and kaleidoscopic impressions.  Granted, the movie may still be an absolute stinker regardless of how you look at it, but in placing your analysis in the context of the intended experience, you now understand, at least, where the creator was coming from - and, more importantly, where they may need to go in order to get on the right track.  At the end of the day, the critic’s mission is to illuminate, not pontificate, and setting tentative creators straight should employ more than scornful smugness and a cold, unengaged analysis.