Monday, July 17, 2017

"Spider-Man: Homecoming" Continues Marvel's Shared Universe Without Fully Standing Alone

Within the last 15 years, Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee's ever popular web-slinger has been portrayed by three different actors, from Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's critically-lauded films in the early 2000s to Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb's gritty and "ultimate" interpretation in 2012, and now to Tom Holland (who made his scene-stealing debut as the friendly neighborhood hero in "Captain America: Civil War" last year).

The good news is, like Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, Holland (whose previous credits include The Impossible and The Lost City of Z) represents a throwback to the fun and fantastic thrills of the comics from the '60s, while embracing John Hughes films of the 80s as well as today's trends. Director Jon Watts, in fact, had the cast watch several Hughes films in preparation for filming, which comes through in scenes like detection a la The Breakfast Club and the titular dance a la Pretty in Pink. (Even the credits are an MTV-style homage to '80s culture.)

The beginning of the film shows Peter filming a video diary of the central heroes battle in Civil War (a creative and impressive update). Two months later, Peter hasn't heard from Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., who reportedly may be hanging his armor up soon) and wants to fight alongside other heroes. And yet, he's held back ("Can't you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?") Thus, Peter continues his regular life as a high school sophomore at Midtown Science with his nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), quirky classmate Michelle (singer Zendaya), while crushing on the prettiest girl in school (Laura Harrier) and sitting through motivational videos from Captain America himself (supposedly before he became an outlaw). His objective throughout the whole movie, obviously, is to prove that he's capable of more than others think, despite being a teenager. Even more, he's portrayed as a real teenager--not a 20-something pretending to be a teen (sorry, Tobey and Andrew).

Here's the good news. The film differs from previous adaptations of Spider-Man by avoiding another origin story route (something the 1989 Batman did really well), another dead Uncle Ben, and another gritty and depressing version of a comic book character (I'm talking to you, Batman v Superman). The fact that Peter is both witty and humorous is pleasing. (After a montage through New York, you'll never hear the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Pop" the same way again.) And when his best friend Ned finds out, we get a different take on "the guy in the chair." The same goes for an unexpected twist involving a central character, Stark's role as a surrogate (and possibly absent) parental figure, and Peter's relationship with Aunt May.

The overall direction of the film is well done, including action sequences that deliver a real sense of vertigo (particularly at the Washington monument), power (when Peter is stuck under massive piles of rubble, echoing what is considered one of the most iconic moments in the comics), and emotional reality. The costume has several technical upgrades via Tony Stark, yet retains the classic look in the comics. In addition, several characters carry a supposed misguided sense of what it means to protect loved ones, understanding how the world works, and what it means when they're "under the radar" and how that affects those closest to them. And the cast is terrific, especially Zendaya as the quirky and sarcastic Michelle, Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, and Michael Keaton as the brilliantly-menacing Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture. (Honestly, what is it with Hollywood casting Keaton in bird-like roles?)

Spider-Man Homemade

Michael Keaton


But the fact that this film, while entertaining, is part of a cinematic franchise may also be its biggest setback. I was hoping for a film that would stand on its own and not require any backstory of previous installments or chapters. The opening of the film is a brief backstory on the Vulture, tracing back to the alien war from the first Avengers. And the occasional salty language (which was one of Guardians  of the Galaxy, Vol. 2's biggest weaknesses as well) does dampen the story at times. Still, like "Wonder Woman," "Spider-Man: Homecoming" proves superheroes can still be fun and heroic, and not just conflicted.

"Wonder Woman" Restores Hope in the DC Film Universe

Wonder Woman (2017): After 75 years, DC Comics' most popular heroine finally gets her first big screen solo outing, and shakes up the superhero/comic-book genre with an origin story of the Amazonian fighter who stands for goodness, peace, and justice.

With Marvel's current winning streak of popcorn superhero flicks and DC's former descent into brooding, depressing fare following the success of the Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), it's easy to see why audiences have rewarded the former studio with much praise while giving the latter's initial installments in their own cinematic universe the cold shoulder.

As with any great movie, one needs a great story and characters that are identifiable and worthy of rooting for. Especially if it's an adaptation, it has to be respectful of the original source material. The Batman franchise hit an all-time peak with Christopher Nolan's critically-acclaimed and financially-successful films that showcased the Caped Crusader and his alter ego Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a brooding and complex vigilante hero who seeks to restore balance on the streets of Gotham City from various adversaries. Unfortunately, this trend of making such a franchise dark and serious led many studio executives to believe that making other superheroes dark and serious (whether these were meant to be or not) was a winning box-office formula. Just look at previous installments of Superman, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four.

Zach Snyder took directing reigns for a more gritty and grounded version of Superman with 2013's Man of Steel (while Nolan stayed on board as co-writer/co-producer). The result was an intriguing, yet divisive and, at times, devastating, take that left many viewers cold (including yours truly, in retrospect). Following the poorly-received and equally-bleak subsequent installments from last year (Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and David Ayer's Suicide Squad), it was easy to be extremely skeptical of the studio's newest take on Wonder Woman (who made her live-action film debut--and practically stole the show--in Snyder's aforementioned sequel), as well as the otherwise highly-anticipated gathering of the Justice League.

Chris Pine and Gal Gadot
But Patty Jenkins (who directed an Oscar-winning Charlize Theron in Monster), writer Allan Heinberg and current DC president Geoff Johns, had a different direction in mind. Said Johns in a recent interview with The Wrap:

Get to the essence of the character and make the movies fun. Just make sure that the characters are the characters with heart, humor, hope, heroics, and optimism at the base.

That being said (and to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert), while Wonder Woman is only the fourth film in DC's Extended Universe, it's truly the first one to get it right. For many fans, it's simply about time a female superhero had her own feature film. (Attempts in the past included the failures that were 2004's Catwoman and 2005's Elektra.) Wonder Woman stands more in line with classic adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as Richard Donner's unforgettable version of Superman rather than Nolan's influences. It also takes the iconic character back to her roots, from her days as a naive and determined girl on the sheltered island of Themyscira (a thing of magnificence with 300-inspired visuals, headed by Queen Hippolyta) to her unprecedented training as a warrior to her first meeting with American pilot Steve Trevor.

The mythology of the Amazons (strong, intelligent, and fierce women) echoes elements that are Greek, biblical, and ancient, tracing back to the Greek gods Zeus and Ares, and Diana's formation. And when Steve Trevor arrives to warn them of the horrors of the first World War and his mission to help stop it, Diana believes that Ares ("the god of war") is behind it, and insists on journeying out into the world (for the first time) to defeat him and stop the war. "I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves," she insists.

Wonder Woman's alter ego, Diana Prince
The film's production design (including the magnificent island of Themyscira and an early 20th-century Europe) is great, as is Dark Knight veteran Lindy Hemming's costume design, particularly in the scene where Diana figures out a proper real-world disguise (complete with glasses), echoing the era's fashion trends and subtle nods to suffragettes back then. The same goes for the scene with her gala dress (with her sword behind her back). And her armor, from the shield to the lasso of truth to her tiara to her body armor, is incredibly well-done without being gratuitous (surprisingly).

Israeli actress Gal Gadot (a former beauty pageant winner who served in the armed forces before breaking out as Gisele in three Fast and Furious sequels) wonderfully embodies everything about Diana/Wonder Woman: she's intelligent, fierce, fearless, honest, humble, determined, naive, kind, earnest, and courageous. She is also very loving and genuine. Her transition from a trained fighter to a fish out of water and to a developing character who sees the reality of the world without sacrificing her ideals is thoroughly compelling and believable. Sure, she is devastated at times, but she ultimately chooses to do the right thing not because others deserve it, but because of what she believes in. If anything, her belief that good will come again is very admirable. This ultimately makes her (and the film) not only worth rooting for, but somebody who truly stands for and fights for something greater. (Now that beats angst and depression by a long shot.)

Chris Pine's Steve Trevor is an adventure-worthy companion to Gadot's Diana, adding grounded charm, swagger, complexity, and humanity in Diana's growth as a character. Diana questions him many times about what it means to live, what people do, what marriage is, what a family is, and especially the goodness and darkness in everybody, and the choice between both. The same goes for remembering why they fight and what they fight for.

"It's what I'm going to do."
And the action sequences deliver with real substance, even though they do feel comic-book-y at times. Yet, they are intense and gritty without getting polarizing. (Many viewers have criticized the CGI-centered climax as the film's weakest segment. I respectfully disagree, as it fits the overall story and mythology of this character.) And the No Man's Land sequence? This scene alone sells the movie, and gives Diana a now-iconic moment in cinema history. (And let's not forget that awesome electric-guitar theme, courtesy Junkie XL!) This movie is a knockout, as well as a benchmark in cinema--not just for women in film, but for the doors it's now opened for other stories to be told.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

$uccessfu! Films: Transformers: A Necessary Franchise?

As far as today's movie franchises go, it seems that just about any series, let alone an installment, can turn a profit, no matter what audiences and/or critics can say against it. The same goes for series' of films that start out well, yet never manage to reclaim the same level of quality or relevance subsequently. From sharks terrorizing small beach towns (Jaws) to average-Joe cops at the wrong place at the wrong time (Die Hard) to Caped Crusaders stalking criminals at night (the Batman movies of the '80s and '90s) to pirates blazing the seas (Pirates of the Caribbean) to dinosaurs running amok at a planned theme park (Jurassic Park) to giant robots smashing the life out of each other (Transformers), said follow-ups still manage to be financially successful.

Which brings me to talk about the latter example.

As just about everybody else can agree, the Transformers franchise (a.k.a. the record-breaking, Michael Bay-directed series, which said director has reportedly concluded with the recently-released fifth installment, The Last Knight) exists off of a popular Hasbro toy brand and T.V. franchise from the '80s. And the films certainly have their many moments of visual sophistication and explosive entertainment. Yet, unlike the popular T.V. series of the 1980s (and despite the anticipation and high hopes surrounding each sequel, including my anticipations for each of them), these films exponentially abandon any childlike wonder of kids playing with action figures and go for straight-up intensity. And they seem to have hit a series' low with The Last Knight. (And that's not just critics, audiences and the box office talking.)

In a story that makes almost no sense, The Last Knight attempts to tell the "secret history of Transformers" is chronicled all the way back to Medieval times, and even expands throughout significant turning points in world history, including Nazi Germany. Then there's Optimus Prime going against his moral code (a la Vin Deisel in Fate of the Furious) in a plot to bring a destroyed Cybertron to Earth, Mark Wahlberg as an on-the-run mechanic who is chosen by a fallen robot knight as a new sword barrier (am I getting flashes of Green Lantern here?), a teenage girl who wishes to fight in an ongoing battle between man and machines, Anthony Hopkins as an English lord who searches for clues from the aforementioned "secret history," and an Oxford professor who turns out to be the last descendant of Merlin.

Come to think of it, the Transformers movies have not always been strong on story, let alone coherence. And they try to make it up here yet again with explosive action sequences and groundbreaking IMAX 3D technology (which, in and of itself, is undeniably impressive). But why not coherence? Why not the childlike wonder? Why not a sense of real optimism as Wonder Woman had? The resulted film makes the other Transformers movies (with the exception of Revenge of the Fallen) look like masterpieces.

I recently recapped on the previous films, and attempted to dissect any "story" in each of them. The first Transformers (2007), for instance, was released as America was at war with Iraq. Arguably, the movie reverently portrays soldiers at the time, while briefly showcasing the history of the war between the Autobots (the good guys) and the Decepticons (the bad guys). The film itself was criticized for devoting less time to the robots and more to its thin and ridiculous plot (written by screenwriting duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who would go on to successfully reboot Star Trek for director J.J. Abrams). For one, there's the goofy subplot involving Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox (with unnecessary--or, as one review called it, dismaying--sexuality in a movie otherwise based on kids' toys). Teo Bugbee of The Daily Beast said the film "was a bit vulgar and a bit sexist and a bit dumb, but it wore its Spielbergian influences on its sleeve." (Steven Spielberg is an executive producer on this series.)

On the other hand, the mythology behind machinery from out of this world and that on earth, as well as the latter's humanity, does break through, including a character who learns he comes from an important and incredible ancestry. ("No sacrifice, no victory" is this family's mantra.) Plus, the limited screen time for the robots does make the finished film more anticipating a la Jaws or Jurassic Park. The most appealing and emotional character (even more than Optimus Prime) is arguably Bumblebee, which Spielberg must have influenced considering the "boy and his car" appeal, a rare case of sympathy for an inanimate object.

The first sequel, Revenge of the Fallen (2009), had a teaser trailer that promised the entertainment goods. What audiences (and critics) got was a rotten two-and-a-half hours of mind-numbing, bombastic, and ear-shattering mayhem (er, Bayhem) and surprisingly crass content. Did I mention there are a duo of stereotypically-offensive twin robots? And don't get me started on the parade of female objectification that rolls out, including but not limited to a reprised Megan Fox.

Plot-wise (if there is one), the movie tries to be too many things at once: a military movie, a dopey college, teenage-sex comedy; a special-effects movie; and an epic adventure set in China and Egypt, but with robots smashing and ripping each other apart. The late Roger Ebert compared this film to banging kitchen pots repeatedly, in order to spare readers the $10 required for a movie ticket. (Read here.) wrote, "[This film] comes with no pretensions of greatness. It's not written to make you think, not crafted to make you cry. Its sole intent is to get moviegoers to fork over their 10 bucks and sit still for two-and-a-half hours. That said, I was surprised at how cold this movie left me." The convoluted subplot has characters going to so much trouble for various things (including a "Devestator" Decepticon that uses a bunch of vehicles to get together, only to be blown up a while later), and all at the expense of showing off fireworks and fighting and all. It's ironic that one soldier, in the heat of a battle, states, "You better have a good reason for us to be here" (as if any moviegoer were strangely asking Bay the same question).

What the movie should have focused more on was the military subplot involving Autobots and soldiers working together and less or none on the dopey comedy and crass sexual content. I do give Bay credit, though, for filming at real locations (and with IMAX cameras for some sequences), such as the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and for doing so many of his action sequences for real. And while there are some noteworthy sacrificial and militant moments in the film as well as a lot of visual sophistication, there's ultimately a lack of real emotional investment throughout. And for what it's worth, this is the first time I saw and read about a movie (let alone a summer blockbuster) that really allowed me to take film criticism into account.

Film three, titled Dark of the Moon (2011), takes the space race of the 60s and injects the war between the Autobots and Decepticons (a promising start) into a plot that fictitiously enables NASA agents to send Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon to investigate what's on the "dark side". This tweak in history is questionable and kind of disturbing. The plot involves Autobots continue to assist human soldiers in "human conflicts," while quirky young adult Sam Witwicky goes job hunting, landing at a company headed by John Malkovich. There are even secrets within NASA and related organizations, as human traitors partner with Decepticons to bring Cybertron to earth, as well as characters who have lost faith and have become pessimistic or misguided ("No. It's not the only way," pleads one significant character.)

The film is a visual improvement over its predecessor, with carefully choreographed and staged action sequences that are less dizzying but still unbearable. The 45-minute climax in none other than Chicago shows people being vaporized, building plummeting, and a city being destructed like a giant pinball machine, especially when a giant Driller Decepticon constricts a building in a complex and mind-rattling sequence that strangely and disturbingly echoes 9/11. Sure, we know who wins, but then, just like that, the film ends.

Just when you thought you've had enough metal mayhem (er, Bayhem) like I did then, a fourth installment, titled Age of Extinction (2014), drops in, with a new cast (including Mark Wahlberg, Kelsey Grammer, and a standout Stanley Tucci as a Steve Jobs-type) and a new style that suggested a possibly different direction for the franchise (albeit a more gritty and human one). Interestingly, the plot involves alien robots being hunted down by human agents and soldiers, as well as an attempted father-daughter story, Optimus Prime being pursued by captures on a mission to return him to his "makers," and the ever-popular "Dinobots". The result was another meaningless romp of explosions and scrap metal. The "Transformium" element is just weird. The Autobots aren't that memorable (although Hound and Lockdown are standouts). Plus, Bumblebee doesn't seem like he's in here much. It's ironic that Tucci's character complains, "Why can't we make what we want to make the way we want to make it?!?"

There are only a few worthy moments, including those between Optimus Prime and Wahlberg's mechanic Cade Yeager ("How many more of my kind must be sacrificed for your mistakes?" "What do you think being human means? That's what we do.") And the score that plays as Prime gets an upgrade while the remaining Autobots assemble is terrific.

If this is all too much to take in, here's an attempted brief summary of each film:

Transformers (2007): A quirky high schooler witnesses the arrival of alien robots on earth, and becomes involved in a war between two races of machines.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): Alien robots fight alongside military soldiers against Decepticons and a new battle involving the ancient history of said alien robots (wait, they've been here before?), while a recent high school graduate goes to college.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): The history of the war between Autobots and Decepticons alters American history of the space race, while a college graduate looks for a job in corporate America.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014): The prehistoric history of alien robots (again, they've been here before) resurfaces as a battle between humans and remaining robots (with help from a family) ensues.

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017): The "secret history" of alien robots resurfaces as battle between humans and robots continues. (Wait, haven't we seen this before?)

Michael Bay behind the scenes of Transformers: The Last Knight
Obviously, it's easy to criticize Michael Bay as a poor filmmaker who favors action and style over substance and character. On the other hand, the work he puts into his action sequences is what makes him, to a degree, noteworthy. Spielberg once said about Bay, "He has the best eye for multiple levels of visual adrenaline." Furthermore, he's one of the few filmmakers nowadays who prefers shooting on film and doing as many practical effects as possible. He's even pushed for the improvement of IMAX and IMAX 3D technology with each subsequent film in the series, despite all of their otherwise flaws. Revenge of the Fallen does have some spectacular shots, as noted above. (The Dark Knight practically revolutionized the big screen imagery a year prior, after all.) And Dark of the Moon does benefit several examples of steady 3D and attention-to-detail. Age of Extinction was reportedly the first film to be shot on IMAX 3D cameras, and it incorporated a lot of different camera angles and dollies made in Japan. Lastly, Bay has stated that 98 percent of The Last Knight was shot with real IMAX 3D cameras. (Watch here and here.)

However, the visual effects in the first film still remain revolutionary; entertaining and exciting, even. I mean, how cool was it to see, for the first time, robots shapeshifting like Rubix cubes in and of themselves? In fact, a friend from college told me he watched the whole movie literally frame by frame just to watch the attention to detail. The combination of practical and CGI effects a la Jurassic Park works. When the Autobots arrive, the sequence is spectacular. Even original voice actors from the cartoon series (including Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime) brought back a level of '80s nostalgia. This is the only Transformers movie with convincing excitement, emotion, and nostalgia, along with typical action that Michael Bay has become synonymous with. (There's a great YouTube video that discusses and critiques Bay's filmmaking style.)*

After seeing all of the other films, however, I'm convinced that my initial instincts were correct (no matter what the other trailers implied): after the first three movies, the others weren't necessary. However, I do have hopes that next year's Bumblebee spinoff (reportedly set in the '80s) will be better, and that new writers and filmmakers will take the franchise in different directions, to what made the T.V. series and action figures appealing to begin with, and "transform" them into movies actually worth watching.

*WRITER'S NOTE: The YouTube link does contain a few PG-13-level profanities in an otherwise informative discussion.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Films of 2017: "Power Rangers"

Trailers for Lionsgate's update of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" earlier this year had the six-year-old in me geeking out. I remember the original series when it premiered on the Fox Kids' Network in the early-Nineties, and thought it was one of the coolest things I've ever seen on T.V. (aside from the Batman animated series and pretty much anything on Nickelodeon back then). And while this gritty and exciting update has some of that same nostalgic vibe in the final cut (the suits and Zords are super cool), it does lack depth and cuts at a mildly-rushing pace, particularly in its first two-thirds.

Most of the film is spent with its engaging though rebellious cast of teenage characters, who come from different backgrounds, even which some of them question. Topics amongst them range from familial conflict, relationships, athletic disappointment, and even sexual identity--some deep stuff for what is essentially a kids' action series. The plot follows them as the come across an old land mine and find five mysterious coins that eventually give them superpowers. (Okay, you know where this is going.) And while the story is mostly predictable, the diversity in the main cast is an added bonus, as eccentric robot Alpha 5 implies, "Different colored coins. Different colored kids."

Speaking of the cast, RJ Cyler (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, 2015) steals the movie as Billy the Blue Ranger, along with the perfect casting of Bryan Cranston as Zordon, Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, and a surprising new spin on Alpha 5 from Bill Hader. Overall, while the six-year-old in me did root at moments (such as during surprise cameos from some of the original "Rangers"), the final cut follows in the same cinematic footsteps as Transformers and Batman Begins before it. If there's a sequel, hopefully there's more "morphin' time" in its script than in its style.

(l-r) RJ Cryer (Billy), Naomi Scott (Kimberly), Ludi Lin (Zach),
Becky G. (Trini), and Dacre Montgomery (Jason) 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Films of 2017: "The Lego Batman Movie"

In the opening minutes of The Lego Batman Movie, star and lead voice-actor Will Arnet's impression of Christian Bale provides hilarious commentary ("Black. All great movies begin in black") over what could be an alternate and humorous prologue to The Dark Knight (2008). Along with the moment where butler Alfred practically recaps the Caped Crusader's live-action cinematic history--including "that weird one in 1966"--the humor in this film is so self-aware and meta, it gives Deadpool a run for his money.

According to one resource, Batman is regarded as one of the most adaptable fictional characters in any media and art form. Whether as as campy 1960s cartoon, a dark and brooding vigilante, or a mysterious hero, he's made his mark on almost every medium in history. This time around, he's given a slight twist. Batman may be the biggest hero in Gotham City, but at home he's a loner. (Although he wouldn't be the first to admit that.) As Alfred tells him, "Your biggest fear is being part of a family again."

"I've seen you go through similar phases, Master Bruce."
And then, the Joker--out of humiliation that Batman doesn't consider him his "greatest enemy"--hatches a plan that unleashes chaos on Gotham (though not as we expect). And then, newly appointed police commissioner Barbara Gordon makes a deal with Batman to save the city on the sole condition that they (along with Alfred and newly-adoptive kid Dick Grayson/Robin) do it together.

While The Lego Movie (2014) really tapped into the mindset of childlike imagination and creativity when it comes to playing with toys (and it did so with art, style and substance), this sophomoric outing and spin-off seems to have been made by filmmakers and comedy writers having a ball by aiming more for pure satire, silliness, and commentary on the Dark Knight's legacy and mythology. Nevertheless, they still manage to tell a surprising, in-depth story, even though the film seems to abandon, at times, the charm of Lego figurines.

The voice cast is clever, with Zach Galifinakis as the Joker, Michael Cera as Robin, Rosario Dawson as Barbara/Batgirl, Ralph Fiennes as Alfred, and just about every member of Batman's rogue's gallery on display. I did also enjoy the clever homages to classic movie villains from Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and even "Doctor Who." All of these elements give the film a colorful charm that would fit right at home at a Cosplay event. On the other hand, this film could arguably serve as an antidote for the retrospectively-depressing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), as well as a lead-in to this fall's highly-anticipated Justice League (which, according to the trailers, promises to be an entertaining and rocking thrill ride). With that in mind, Lego Batman, perhaps, is truly the first film that bridges the gap between the campy Batman and the dark and brooding version.

Adults will probably enjoy this one more than kids, which is both a plus and sort of a minus, in terms of subtle references that will easily fly over the latter's heads (like clips from the R-rated Jerry McGuire, as well as the aforementioned movie-villain homages in the Phantom Zone sequence). The same goes for an arguably subtle nod to Suicide Squad's original treatment ("What am I gonna do? Get a bunch of criminals to fight criminals?") Nevertheless, Lego Batman is still a fun ride for any and every Batman fan, with messages of family, self-doubt, and teamwork over individualism ("It takes a village, not a Batman"), as well as the theme of losing loved ones and yet honoring those still in our lives. Now, that's something you don't see every day in the form of colorful toy bricks.

Films of 2017: "Get Out"

The goal of comedy is to get people to laugh, whereas the goal of horror is to get people to be scared. As a filmgoer, those who know me well know that I generally try to avoid horror films, as a large majority of them arguably focus on nihilistic and mean-spirited gore and violence, which makes them very maddening and even palpable. (Read here for my review of the Scream series, despite its clever meta aspects). It's rare, though, that a "horror" film actually has something provocative to say, in spite of its excess in said gore and/or fright factors. With that in mind, I did find "Cabin in the Woods" (2012) interesting to an extent, due to its meta elements.

Get Out, the directorial debut from Jordan Peele (one half of the famous comedy duo Key & Peele), is another rare case of a horror-thriller with such social commentary--in this case, racial fears in America. Having read many reviews of this film (without spoilers), not to mention its 99 percent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I was intrigued to view it--with discretion and discernment, of course.

Director Jordan Peele behind the scenes
The premise is simple. A young Caucasian woman named Rose (Girls star Allison Williams) brings her black boyfriend Chris (Sicario's Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford as a neurosurgeon and Catherine Keener as a hypnotist-psychiatrist) for the weekend, and things take a shocking turn for the worse. The objective isn't so much a lesson in morals or values, but really (as most films of this genre go) a fight for survival.

One of Peele's influences was reportedly George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, which features a black protagonist, with perhaps a little Guess Who's Coming to Dinner-meets-Stepford Wives thrown in. (Isn't it just creepy the way the house servants talk?!?) Peele also balances elements of comedy (especially Chris's TSA friend Rod, played by LilRel Howery) with clich├ęd jump scares.

Daniel Kaluuya
The result, though a brilliantly-made film that would easily fit alongside the filmographies of Romero and John Carpenter, is creepy. The opening scene, for instance, shows a young black man walking down a quiet and lonely street at night, until he's quietly followed. (The song playing in the car following him is the 1930s classic "Run Rabbit Run".) Along with subtle themes of abduction, brainwashing (mental paralysis), and power, Peele reportedly provides an expression of the black experience via an effective, often comedic, and downright frightening horror-thriller. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

$uccessfu! Films: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)

Franchises and series have had a long history--particularly in books--prior to the motion picture industry in the 1900s onward, from Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan adventures to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes investigations to the Grimm Brothers' countless interpretations of classic fairy tales. The novels of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) carry an equal baggage of adventure, mystery, and fantasy. Despite the author's dislike for allegory (unlike friend C.S. Lewis's use of the form in his beloved "Chronicles of Narnia" series), his admiration for history, linguistics, and applicable themes and characters is evident throughout his most famous works that comprise his world of "Middle-earth"--"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings". (The same goes for his posthumous work, "The Silmarrilion," which chronicles the history of elves in this universe.)

Only previously adapted into several audio versions and a 1978 animated feature directed by Ralph Bakshi, the thought of adapting what was long considered (even by Tolkien himself) an "unfilmable" work was risky, let alone daunting. Nevertheless, acclaimed filmmaker and New Zealand-native Peter Jackson (whose previous credits at the time included low-budget, gross-out horror movies, as well as the true-story crime-thriller Heavenly Creatures [1994] and the Michael J. Fox-led horror-comedy The Frighteners [1996]), wife and screenwriting partner Fran Walsh, co-writer Phillipa Boyens, creative director Richard Taylor and the folks at Jackson's visual effects company Weta Digital and the Weta Workshop, embarked on a seven year odyssey to bring The Lord of the Rings (which celebrated fifteen years last year since it first premiered in theaters) to the big screen. The results were unprecedented at the time, considering a motion picture trilogy had never been released within the span of three years (predating the two-part finales of fantasy novels Harry Potter and Twilight, and, of course, almost all the films in the Marvel Studios canon), and they remain phenomenal.

The story, which begins with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), centers on the One Ring of power that the evil lord Sauron plans to use to destroy Middle-earth, and the quest made by hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who was entrusted with said Ring from his cousin Bilbo Baggins (the hero of "The Hobbit"), to the fires of Mount Doom, the one place where it can be destroyed. Accompanying Frodo on his journey are the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan); loyal friends Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd); ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen); soldier Boromir (Sean Bean); elf and archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and dwarf warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), each representing distinct cultures. Those that stand in Frodo's way include, of course, Sauron (represented in the shape of a giant eye), the corrupted wizard Saruman (the legendary Christopher Lee), armies of orcs and trolls and other frightening creatures as wolf-like Wargs and a giant spider, and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), once a simple individual who had, long ago, tragically fallen captive to the Ring's power).

The main reason the films hold up is that Tolkien's themes remain in tact. Multiculturalism. Power. Deception. Fellowship. Courage. Heroism. Heritage. Legacy. Myth. Environmentalism. History. It's all there. Having served in both World Wars, Tolkien, like many of his comrades, had traumatic experiences and would express them through literature. In "The Two Towers" (part two of this series), for instance, the scenes involving the Dead Marshes represent fallen soldiers. Meanwhile, Aragorn (who is revealed to be the lost heir of a fallen kingdom) fears that he will fall into the same weaknesses as his ancestors, whereas Boromir (the son of a misguided and maddening steward of said kingdom) feels equally misguided and conflicted in his quest to do what he believes is right for his people, considering the loss of hope in the process.

At the same time, Tolkien believed that there were things worth fighting for--friendship, family, and above all good triumphing over evil. The prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring provides an understanding of the history and mythology of Middle-earth, as if it were a real world with real and fantastical places. Therefore, the "War of the Ring" in his fantasy epic represents a war that had to be fought. The epilogue of The Two Towers (2002), as spoken by Sam, assures this point. With that in mind, the central heart of the story is the journey of Frodo and Sam (representing the role of English officers and their loyal and accountable batmen).

Other themes include the role of technology, specifically in Saruman's role of greed and power (a la the Industrial Revolution) against the forces of nature, and vice versa. Then there's the role of fear, not only in the form of a giant fiery eye (Sauron, representing monoism and true evil), but also that of a giant diseased and decaying spider. And there is the theme of leadership and heritage, illustrated in the White Tree of Gondor (as seen in The Return of the King [2003]), which reportedly represents a line of kings.

From Page To Screen
The script process started out as a 90-page treatment in the mid-Nineties, followed by a two-film promotion, at almost every major studio. Finally, it was the Time Warner-owned New Line Cinema that insisted there be three films--since there were three books. (Decades before George Lucas had initially intended with Star Wars, Tolkien had intended "The Lord of the Rings" as one whole book, and it reportedly took him eleven-to-twelve years, between 1937 and 1948, to write and complete it before it was first published in 1954-1955.)

As with most films adapted from novels or plays or books, there are certainly many elements that purists would likely argue over. In this case, the absence of the popular character Tom Bombadil and the "Scourging of the Shire" climax, as well as the restructuring of different stories being intersected or told simultaneously rather than separately. (Tolkien's purpose in doing this, particularly with the second and third volumes, was to create "realism from not knowing what's going on," therefore providing tension and anticipation in the overall narrative.) Jackson and company also turned to the Appendix sources found at the end of the text for "The Return of the King" for certain ideas and materials.

The overall structure of The Two Towers and The Return of the King, compared with Fellowship, is different and complex, with the former being the middle chapter, of course. Various story lines alternate or are juxtaposed, from Frodo and Sam's unlikely guidance by Gollum to Mordor, to the journey to the kingdom of Rohan by Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf; to Merry & Pippin's encounter with the age-old Ent Treebeard; and to Saruman's dominion over the land of Isengard. Both this film and King use careful chronology of events in the book while maintaining the essence of the overall story. The Two Towers improves on the first film with an even more engaging and progressive story about holding on to hope, regardless of the world and its circumstances. (There's a great moment where Aragorn encourages a young boy readying for battle.) It even emphasizes the importance of tales and storytelling (as in the scene where Sam wonders if he and Frodo will be remembered by such means). But it's The Return of the King that culminates all of the technological and emotional sophistication that Jackson and company had carried through the seven-year odyssey in creating and completing this story for the screen. Here, they pull out all the stops, as never before seen in film, with the darkest, most grim, and most emotional of the films. Is it any wonder this final film won Best Picture of the Year at the Oscars?

The advancements in computer-generated effects at the turn of the 21st century bring Tolkien's work to visual life, including improvements and reshoots (and "pick-ups") made in each subsequent film. An interesting fact: principal photography finished in December 2000 (with a scene at Minas Tirith), and the last "pick-up" reshoot took place in July 2003, five months before Return of the King was released. The fact that these films were made in New Zealand, for one thing, has made the country not only synonymous with Middle-earth but also an acclaimed and popular tourist attraction in recent years.

In addition, the growth of Weta Digital over the years has been staggering. For instance, Fellowship has 540 VFX shots, The Two Towers has 799, and Return of the King has 1488. The development and revolution of motion-capture technology (or, "mo-cap"), especially with Andy Serkis's dedicated and unforgettable performance as Gollum, is equally impressive. Serkis has practically become a legend in the "mo-cap" community, with his subsequent work on Jackson's remake of King Kong (2005), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), and the reboots of Planet of the Apes (2011, 2014). Again, the detail is not just there for its own sake, but to represent and illustrate culture and history (putting aside that it's all fantasy). Howard Shore's score is epic, adventurous, emotional, and "culturally significant."

Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen (Gandalf) on the set of The Return of the King (2003)
The work of the entire cast and crew not only paid off commercially and critically, but also led to an unprecedented and deserved recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, with a total of eleven Oscars (tying with 1959's Ben-Hur and 1997's Titanic) in every category it was nominated for, including Best Picture. Not bad for a fantasy epic long considered "unfilmable," not to mention a once low-budget filmmaker soon on his way to returning another "King."