Tag Archives: film

On Rewatching “The Last Jedi”

Like many, I was disappointed with Rian Johnson’s recent Star Wars film. I thought “The Force Awakens” was a great film, evoking the spirit of the original trilogy while also adding new characters and moments to the mythos. Yes, it borrowed its plot too heavily from “A New Hope”, but the core dynamics of story and character worked and, after the disaster that was the prequels, it was a great improvement.

Upon first viewing “The Last Jedi”, I found myself distracted by story inconsistencies and the pacing. Comedic scenes such as Luke tossing the lightsaber behind him or Finn walking through the command ship naked and leaking in his coma suit didn’t work for me. New characters like Holdo and DJ seemed unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Certain scenes seemed strange and grating such as ghost Yoda blowing up a tree and Leia using the Force to guide herself back to her spaceship after it is attacked. And the revelations of the mysteries posed in the previous installment were trite and uninteresting. Rey has no connection to the Skywalkers? Snoke is unimportant?

Certain moments I did enjoy. Some of the action scenes were interesting and the moral of the story, that anyone can be a hero and hope never truly dies, is solid. But the whole structure of the film felt mismanaged.

Upon rewatching the film in the comfort of my own home without the high expectations from my initial viewing, I found myself with a more positive view of the film with some of the same old qualms still.

The interaction of Luke, Rey and Kylo is the heart of the film. Every time those characters are on screen, the story sings. Fallen mentor, fallen student, new student, forbidden love. It’s the Shakespearean dynamics that Star Wars is known for. I’m okay now with Rey not being a Skywalker or a Kenobi or a Solo. I just wish her involvement with the story was more invested. Perhaps the story could tie in to the prequels a little bit (just a little) and the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force. In “Force Awakens”, Luke’s lightsaber calls out to her. She’s destined for something, but “Last Jedi” doesn’t focus on this aspect of her character. She doesn’t need to have important parents, but she does need to be important.

Some of the action scenes of the First Order fleet chasing down the Resistance are interesting and exciting, but as a whole, the subplot of the story is dramatically lacking. The plot is basically bad guys chase good guys and good guys try to escape. It’s not very interesting. The good guys should initiate action of some kind. Perhaps an assassination mission against Snoke. Perhaps a trip to a neutral world to try and recruit the natives to your side instead of the First Order’s. Perhaps a quest to decimate the First Order base by recruiting spies on the inside, someone that Finn knows. Poe, Finn, Leia and Rose need something to do other than just run away.

And perhaps the film’s biggest detriment is that it doesn’t feel like the middle chapter of a trilogy. It feels like the end. Luke is gone, the Resistance has escaped and will live on, Kylo has lost all sense of who he is. The story feels completed. The middle chapter should build on the previous’ questions and set you up for the finale, not leave you wondering what else can come from this story. There’s no intrigue with the tale anymore. Basically all we have is Kylo is evil and Rey and the Resistance must stop him. If there was a tie-in to the prophecy, that would at least promise something climactic to follow this adventure, but there’s not. If this were the final film of the saga, it would indeed end the new trilogy on a strong note thematically: anyone in the galaxy can be a hero, no matter how destitute you are., and hope will always live on The final shot of the kid using the Force to manipulate his broom and looking to the stars is how Star Wars should end. But instead we have another chapter still. Where do we go from here?

Whatever fans may feel about “Force Awakens”, JJ Abrams was able to replicate the magic of the Star Wars universe in his film more than anyone else has (even older George Lucas). Where he goes from here, no one knows but perhaps his ending to this trilogy will make “Last Jedi” more complete in the whole saga. In another two years, perhaps how I view the film will improve even more.

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“Flatliners” a boring mess

When the horrible reviews for the new “Flatliners” film came out, the natural assumption was that the film was gloriously bad, full of funny deaths and ridiculous jump scares. What a disappointment to find out that “Flatliners” isn’t just not fun, it’s downright boring.

Five medical students, led by Courtney (Ellen Page), engage in a dangerous game of inciting near-death experiences by stopping their hearts. While “dead”, they get a glimpse of the afterlife and a world outside our own. What Ray (Diego Luna), Marlo (Nina Dobrev), Jamie (James Norton), Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) and Tessa (Madison Brydges) don’t realize however, is that they all suffer from waking nightmares from their past, their sins coming back to haunt them in the present after they go under.

A remake of a 1990 film of the same name, “Flatliners” can’t decide what exactly it is. Is it a cheap horror film made for exploitative death scenarios and random sex scenes? Is it a “smart” thriller that plays with sci-fi tropes and presents interesting ideas about consciousness and the afterlife? The film toes the line between both and comes out a mess, not clever enough to present intriguing ideas nor creative enough to give us inventive kills and scares.

With flat characters and an uneven plot, the film is instantly forgettable and a shame considering the concept is somewhat interesting.

Consider the following approach:

– Five medical students, whose background of deception is hinted at before they meet, accidentally stumble upon a way to venture into the afterlife. Blind with power, they rush headfirst into this new world, seeing a world of possibility and potential, never taking a moment to recognize the danger lurking for each of them. The dead start to grow envious of their ability to leap between worlds and kill them one by one in creative ways in the afterlife. As they realize what is happening, Courtney, the protagonist, must go in one more time and try to fix what’s been broken, but it is too late, her dead sister coming to get her, and they are all captured, punishment for their hubris.

That’s the classic, horror approach to the narrative. You could also have the smart, interesting approach below:

– When five students discover they can flip back and forth between the afterlife and reality, they begin a quest to figure out life’s mysteries, digging deeper and deeper into the dead world, looking for some answers. When Courtney is finally trapped by some force in the dead world, it’s up to her friends to try and bring her back to life. Their love and commitment through the journey is tested as they realize the folly of their way. The strange force in the dead world speaks to Courtney, terrifying her with its knowledge. She is saved before he can claim her and they all learn not to mess with the eternal forces of the world.

Instead, the movie we have is a boring, mind-numbing mess, put together without ingenuity or grace, an empty, emotionless slog.

 

“Black Panther” a cultural milestone for cinema

Director: Ryan Coogler

Producers: Victoria Alonso, Jeffrey Chernov, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Stan Lee, David J. Grant, Nate Moore

Writers: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole

Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison

Editor: Debbie Berman, Michael P. Shawver

Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, John Kani, Andy Serkis, Letita Wright

 

Synopsis:

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home of Wakanda after the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani). Wakanda is a technological marvel hidden in the heart of Africa, powered by a precious metal called vibranium. After going through the ritual ceremony to become the next king, T’Challa dons the persona of the Black Panther, a superhero figure of legend and myth. He sets out to find Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), one of the few outsiders to know of vibranium and a killer of the Wakandan people and bring him to justice, along with his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) and with the help of his sister, Shuri (Letita Wright). Little does he know though that a new enemy, the dangerous commando, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), lurks in the background and seeks to usurp the throne.

Background Info:

The Black Panther character was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1966. The first mainstream black superhero, the character was moderately successful during his initial run and bounced around with general comic’s popularity over the coming decades. In this age of superhero film mania, it’s surprising (disappointing) that a film starring a black lead has taken so long to get to the big screen (18 years since the first X-Men film though it’s important not to forget the “Blade” trilogy even though they never quite had the superhero budget treatment). With Ryan Coogler, after his success with “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”, and the Marvel movie machine behind the production, the hype for releasing the film was tremendous as it has become the highest grossing superhero film yet and the third-highest grossing film ever in the United States.

General Review:

The film feels different than the other Marvel films in its single focus and intimacy. You don’t have Iron Man or Thor showing up for a comical cameo or a whole lot of universe building that sets up future films. T’Challa himself is a very serious character with no quipping, no clever lines and no camera winking. It’s a relatively simple story of a son atoning for the sins of his father and learning about the responsibilities of being a king. It’s a path Marvel should take more often.

The look and feel of the film is impressive, bringing a new culture to life that is both new and familiar. When the film lags or stutters from time to time, it is still never boring or uninteresting as the viewer is immersed in this new world, part sci-fi, part African tribe, part dream.

Many point to the film as Shakespearean, which is indeed the case with the relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger. The familial line and feuding brothers and a fight over the throne all add different dimensions to a film that tries desperately to break the Marvel mold. It elevates the story beyond just another fun time at the movies.

There are points when the film feels a bit aimless and trying to find its way as in a car chase sequence in South Korea or a bank robbery in London, almost as if such sequences were pushed on by the studio to make the film more action and adventure when it doesn’t really need it, but the dynamics of incorporating some James Bond-esque scenes are nevertheless intriguing. You can still ride the ride of the film and feel the power of the story. Taking root in mythology and family gives the movie added emotional weight and featuring the “black experience” in today’s world makes the film timely.

What matters most from a cultural standpoint is what Black Panther represents. Much like “Wonder Woman” last year, seeing a different type of superhero (not a straight, white male) is inspiring. What he represents is in some ways more important than who he is. The film does a good job of balancing that expectation of illustrating the image of a black superhero without playing it up for selfish reasons. Add to that the representation of strong female characters who fight alongside him and serve as his preeminent bodyguards and you have a fully diversified film, still a rarity from Hollywood.

SPOILER SECTION

Plot Breakdown:

  • Inciting Incident: T’Challa returns home to be crowned king.
  • Act One Climax: T’Challa decides to find Ulysses and bring him back to Wakanda for justice, his first act as king.
  • Midpoint: KIllmonger defeats Black Panther and throws him over the waterfall’s edge.
  • Act Two Climax: After rising from the dead, Black Panther concocts a plan to take down Killmonger using the help of his sister and loyal subjects.
  • Act Three Climax: T’Challa retakes the throne and decides to share Wakanda’s technology with the world.

Analysis:

An argument can be made that Killmonger is a more interesting character than T’Challa. His position that the world has turned its back on those of African heritage and they must seek to overthrow the world is interesting. The betrayal of T’Chaka against Killmonger’s father adds further fuel to his anger and gives him empathy. His role could have been expanded more and truly represented the repressed African spirit. Perhaps we see glimpses of his youth and the hardships he endured. Perhaps he comes to Wakanda and presents them pictures of the slums of LA and Washington, DC, showing how the colonizers are still abusing Africans and how the Wakandans have turned their backs on their own people. This would have really elevated the film more as an ethical examination. The film nearly breaks free of the superhero genre in the way that “The Dark Knight” and “Logan” have before, but doesn’t quite get there.

T’Challa is a strong character, but a little too perfect. He has no inner challenges in regards to character. Perhaps if he was fearful of the throne and the burden it will bring to him. Perhaps if he failed in a more dramatic fashion than his inability to capture Ulysses and the tribes grumbled about his lack of leadership. Maybe he considers letting Killmonger have the throne as it has brought him nothing but misery. Such plot points are hinted at in the film, but could have been enhanced even more.

Another thing missing is a representative character of the Wakandan people, someone who witnesses the events of the plot as a spectator. Perhaps T’Challa meets a young child on his first stroll through the city as king and talks to him, encouraging him to be a doctor or engineer like his sister and reminding him not to fight with his siblings as peace is the way. As the battle over the throne commences, we see the conflict among the common people through his eyes as different families take Killmonger or T’Challa’s side and conflict erupts on the street. The boy sees peace as the way and forms a group that refuses to go along with Killmonger’s war plans, bringing the people to T’Challa’s side as the final battle begins.

Wakanda is a dream representation of an African utopia, a place of beauty, innovation and peace, a black Camelot in a way. It represents a world that could have been were it not for colonization, racism and genocide and all the negative forces of the globe. Seeing that representation is a hope for all peoples, not just Africans, but everyone who believes in an ideal world full of culture and peace. The film does an admirable job of creating a world that many dream of and hope to create. For so long, Camelot was a place of Anglo-Saxons, but seeing a new type of El Dorado and Atlantis onscreen is important. That will ultimately be “Black Panther’s” legacy. The final shot of the film, an impressive T’Challa in his regal robes and spaceship next to a young boy playing basketball, is an uplifting image of hope.

 

 

 

“Annihilation” is bizarre, challenging and awe-inspiring

Writer and director Alex Garland made a name for himself with his brilliant film “Ex Machina” (2015). As one of the bright new names in science fiction, expectations were sky-high for his follow-up film. Even if no one really went to see it, “Annihilation” is something you’ve never seen before in a big Hollywood production: a sci-fi film with brains, macho feminism and big ideas that challenge the viewer long after the experience.

After her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a combat mission and proceeds to convulse after behaving strangely, Lena (Natalie Portman) learns the backstory to where he’s been for the past year. A strange area of land in the Northeast United States has been enveloped by a strange entity called the Shimmer. Her husband is the only survivor of an expedition that went in, sent in by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), head of an organization called the Southern Ranch. With the area growing, the concern is that the Shimmer will overtake the world before they can stop it. A new team, led by Ventress herself, is set to take the next mission inside and reach the lighthouse, the hub of the Shimmer. Lena, looking to learn what happened to her husband, joins the team with Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Anya (Gina Rodriguez).

Based off a book by Jeff VanderMeer, the film is a mix of science fiction and horror, and the audience is never really sure what is going to happen next and what to believe. The result is a nerve-wracking mind melt that challenges you throughout the story. For audiences who like everything explained to them and a plot that goes from point A to B to C, it’s a difficult experience, but for those willing to think through the film as they watch it, it’s a rewarding science fiction journey. It’d be interesting what a repeat viewing would reveal and whether it would reinforce your first notions of what the film represents or contradict them.

The film is set apart by its visuals which, considering it’s $40 million budget, are spectacular. Whether it’s the shimmer, the lush foliage or the exotic, horrific creatures, the film is a beautiful, terrifying work of art.

Dealing mostly with the abstract, the story is meant to be absorbed and analyzed more than related through with a standard protagonist. Does it represent the duality of nature? Our interconnectedness with the universe? The perverseness of time and space? It might be different for every person.

 

Not for the faint of heart, “Annihilation” is an exhilarating tour-de-force, a sci-fi epic that’s imbued with more terror than most horror films.

“It” features strong characters and silly jump scares

The original “It” is a campy yet well-remembered miniseries that created the distinctly memorable Pennywise (originally Tim Curry). Adjusting for modern day standards, the possibility to create a new terror clown for a new generation is ripe with potential. The filmmakers behind the new “It” hit most of the right marks whether or not their intention was pure horror.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, “It” tells the story of a small Maine town called Derry, where a demonic, transforming creature hunts and devours children. After his brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappears, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) struggles with coming to terms that Georgie in fact may be dead. A loser in the town, he, along with his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), are bullied and tormented by older kids and misunderstood and disrespected by their parents and the adults around them. When they meet new girl in town Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and discover the secrets of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), they must band together despite their past and fears to stop him.

The characters are fleshed out and strong. Each of the kids has a distinct personality and arc that contributes to the overall story. Their harsh parents admonish in some cases abuse them, really reflecting author Stephen King’s sensibilities and tone. The kids’ bond is so strong because of their lack of upbringing and support. With no one else to turn to, their friendship is their only hope. Adults and adulthood are toxic and this is represented by Pennywise, a manifestation of the fear of growing up.

Skarsgard excels as the demonic clown, bringing new terror to an already iconic role. He manages to make Pennywise his own creation quite different and more extreme than the previous version. He is scary, campy, funny and disorienting.

The scares of the film are where things fall either positively or negatively depending on your experience. For those genuinely frightened by modern-day jump scares, the film will be terrifying. For those who find such tactics hokey and pedestrian (writer included), there is little terror and indeed several instances of laughter. But in a film such as this, it’s okay if not everything is not taken very seriously. It is a story about a demonic clown after all. Much like Freddy Krueger, Pennywise is so fantastical that the ingenuity of his terror is fun. In a way, this can be construed to show us how silly our fears really are in the grand scheme of things.

The film is a bit too long, but a beating heart at the core of the story powers the narrative through to its conclusion. It is definitively Stephen King’s original work brought to life onscreen.

“I, Tonya” a searing portrait of “truth”

Tonya Harding is one of the most infamous characters of the 1990s, but what is the real story about her and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Was Harding involved? Is she a villain or a victim? “I, Tonya” tells the story from Harding’s perspective, but with a wink about the nature of truth.

Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script written by Steven Rogers, the film starts with a young Tonya (Margot Robbie) as she grows up under the fierce tutelage of her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who verbally and emotionally abuses her. She marries the violent Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who keeps pushing her to excel on the national and international stage. Her connection to him leads to a bizarre series of events that culminates with a crying Nancy Kerrigan, a public evisceration and years of scandal.

The film is organized around a “Goodfellas” style of voiceover, intermittent interviews and talking to camera. By framing the story around the words of those who were directly involved in the events, the issue of what is truth takes center stage. Tonya tells one story, her mom tells another, her ex-husband tells yet another. And then they change their minds about what happened. And on top of that, the media quickly comes to their own interpretation and defines the story regardless of the facts. It’s an interesting examination similar to “Rashomon”, but with a distinctly American feel. The film dares you to examine your own preconceived notions about the crime and examine if you what you believe is still what you believe.

All of the actors, particularly Robbie and Oscar-winner Janney, excel and the script motors along at a brisk, never-boring pace. You really feel for Harding as she is portrayed as a victim of circumstance rather than a villain. Whether or not that is true is up for debate, even by the film. But this is Harding’s story by Harding. Whether we take it as vindication for her past is up to us.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is fine but lacks gravitas

Directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the story of Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in one of his most famous cases. When Mr. Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the dead of night aboard the Orient Express, everyone in the coach is a suspect. Could it be Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley)? Or Dr. Arbutnot (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or perhaps the butler, Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?

The film is a fun, if ultimately forgettable, jaunt into an old time mystery. The movie plays it up hokey at times and it could have done so even more. Keeping things light and campy would have really accentuated the classic sense of the film and harken back to an oldtime era. As it is, the reason behind the movie is more of a mystery. It tries to incorporate modern technique into an old story but comes across as too beholden to the past. Perhaps it is just a vanity project as it is directed, starred in and produced by Branagh.

The cinematography is great and the acting is solid. It’s an enjoyable ride that just glides along the surface. The original 1973 version seems so much more memorable though. It really took time to delve into the characters and the story and focused on the mystery as the driving plot. This film is adequate but lacks muster.