Friday, December 29, 2017

RETROSPECT: "Justice League," Zach Snyder's Vision, and A Closer Look at "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"

Diana Prince: "They said the age of heroes would never come again."
Bruce Wayne: "It has to."
I'll be honest, I was really looking forward to Justice League this fall. I've been eagerly awaiting the film's release for well over a year, especially after the depressing and disappointing DCEU films that were Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (or, BvS) and Suicide Squad, respectfully, as well as promising Comic-Con trailers of Justice League (or, JL) and Wonder Woman that summer. Plus, the gathering and remaking of several DC superheroes together for the first time, including Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash, was exciting, not to mention the more-fun-yet-still-gritty tone in director Zack Snyder's interpretation.

I really wanted to like it, and not get myself too hyped up about the anticipation surrounding it, particularly from Rotten Tomatoes' score reveal the week of its release. (Okay, I did get a little too worked up about that.) When said score was revealed (around 40 percent at the time), I was like, "Oh, come on. How can they say that?" Then I thought, "Well, at least it can't be as depressing or 'rotten' as BvS was." After I saw JL opening weekend, I did enjoy myself, especially the central characters and the three-year-old in me going gaga over composer Danny Elfman's homage to the original Batman theme from 1989. But a while after seeing the movie, and immediately reading other things online about what it could have been (considering Snyder was replaced by Joss Whedon in post-production with reshoots and various changes made to the middling theatrical version of the film), I was feeling depressed again.

Then, in light of said depression, something strange and ironic happened. I felt an appreciation for BvS a little more, especially for what Snyder and company were trying to artistically express, no matter how bleak or challenging. So, I decided to go buy the "Ultimate Edition" on Bluray (released last year, too) and view it the same weekend. And I have to say, for all its flaws and polarizing elements (this is not a film for children or less discerning viewers), this 30-minute-longer edition is superior to the theatrical cut. Not only does it fill in some of the convoluted plot holes of the latter version. It also spends more time with some of the characters and gives the story a deeper understanding, as well as gravitas. And yes, it is a bit more violent (hence, this version's R-rating).

(l-r) Ben Affleck (Batman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), and Henry Cavill (Superman)
in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The film picks up during the climax of 2013's Man of Steel, as Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) inadvertently cause catastrophic damage to Metropolis (with 9/11-esque imagery). As a witness to these events, billionaire Bruce Wayne (a hard-as-nails Ben Affleck) is older, more experienced, and more bruised and battered. How Wayne reacts to said damage fuels subtle anger and rage, causing him and many others (including politicians, world leaders and other billionaires) to see Superman as an enemy. Wayne even has a (fairly incoherent) nightmarish vision of what the world could become--a post-apocalyptic wasteland--if beings from other worlds attacked, and Superman was indeed a dark figure.

The questioning of what heroes (regular and/or super) can do, as opposed to what they should do (or what others believe they should do) is central to this story. "Does he act by our will, or by his own" asks a skeptical senator. Are they needed? Are people worth saving? And how do we define "good"? Furthermore, following Superman's appearance on earth (from another planet, obviously), there are theories and concerns about other "meta-humans" like him. (Clips of those characters do appear later on, from the Flash to Cyborg to Aquaman and of course Wonder Woman, though many would call this more of a collection of "teaser trailers" for upcoming DC films.) Such actions include using elements of power to weaponize, such as the Kryptonian technology, first found by Lex Luthor's company and later stolen by Wayne, each with their own personal agendas. (In Batman terms, Kryptonite represents "fear" and weakness for Kent, obviously.) These theme of characters who take matters into their own hands can be summarized by Wayne: "The world only makes sense when you force it to."

The motif of those who think they're above the law applies not just to various characters' views of Superman, but also about Batman, and even Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a warped interpretation who challenges his own view of "God" throughout, maybe on par (or more than) Salieri in Amadeus, regarding the Devil, Heaven and Hell, and a father's influence as well. It's implied that he and several adversaries even arranged for Superman to show up in certain circumstances just to frame him and to expose him as a "false god". As Luthor claims, it's "the problem of evil in the world . . . The problem of you [Superman] above everything else in the world." A blasphemer indeed.

Henry Cavill
The character of Superman in Man of Steel received a lot of criticism for the death of a villain at the famed hero's hands. The character of Batman in BvS is taken to a similar but more brutal level. No doubt, Ben Affleck makes a convincing and broken Bruce Wayne/Batman. (I mean, just look at his military armor!) Both heroes, in fact, are known for their "no-kill" ethos. But that didn't stop the filmmakers from taking the Dark Knight on a few violent escapades, even though Cavill does his best to show the Man of Steel saving human beings as much as he can, and butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) does all he can to be the voice of reason for Bruce ("He is not our enemy"). The aforementioned nightmare scene shows Batman branding and firing a gun, and he does blast a few baddies with his Batmobile and beats several others to a pulp in a warehouse. These notions cannot be taken lightly, nor should they be seen as mere "entertainment."

Both characters, at one point or another, succumb to the belief that "no one stays good in this [hopeless] world." Even so, as Bruce tells us, "There was a time when things were perfect" (my emphasis). A time before darkness, before chaos, before a young Wayne watched his parents murdered in front of his eyes. Yes, we know Batman's origin story countless times over. What Snyder does with this element in the film's opening sequence, however, is poetically foreshadow not only Batman's story, but also the other events that will shape the cities of Gotham, Metropolis, and others around and in between. And it's Thomas Wayne's last word ("Martha") that signifies the end of innocence for young Bruce.

Yes, the infamous "Martha" moment at the climax of the titular fight (which has great buildup and epic scale, to be sure) is easy to scoff at, considering both Wayne and Kent's (earth) mothers share the same name, and many would see this as a lazy and ridiculous way to get both characters to join together. But as I rewatched the film, I realized that when Bruce hears Superman say the name, it powerfully and emotionally forces him to strongly consider the hope and beauty he's about to let be killed--in this case, again ("You're letting him kill Martha!"). This summons the guilt Bruce had over his parents' deaths, as well as the brokenness and lack of humanity he has recently formed in himself.

Ben Affleck
Clark Kent has his own convictions and conflicts about his role in the world. "Superman was never real," he insists. "It was just a dreaming farmer from Kansas. . . . My world [Krypton] doesn't exist anymore." On the contrary, the words of his earthly father Jonathan Kent ring out: "Your mother [Martha Kent] gave me faith that there was good in this world." And it's that similar memory that proves a weakness for Bruce, and yet an eventual willingness to return the favor, to do the right thing. It's from this point on that things begin to get hopeful again.

The second half of the film is where several standout action sequences occur, including a truck chase, the aforementioned warehouse (a knock out as well as a showcase for the Dark Knight), the titular fight, and Wonder Woman's first appearance in battling Doomsday; when the trio is finally all together, it's a home-hitter and true roller-coaster adrenaline. Plus, the fact that Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) serves as a peacemaker between both fallen heroes adds to the theme of characters finding true goodness to fight for again. And Snyder certainly pulls out all the stops with the accelerating action, complete with a rousing score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. (Zimmer has since retired from composing superhero films.)

The tone of this extended version mirrors DC's dark and gritty T.V. shows like Gotham and Arrow. Additional scenes include the brief appearance of Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) getting help from a fellow reporter/analyst, and Clark Kent investigating local news of the Gotham City "Bat" ("There's a new kind of terror [besides aliens from the sky]," says one witness, "He is angry and he is hunting.")

Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot
If anything, the film is about characters who have lost their morality and their ideals, and what makes them find those again. Make no mistake, BvS is a polarizing, grim, and violent film, and should never be taken lightly. On the other hand, it does what very few filmmakers (including Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan) have done with comic book source material. It provides a contemplative and thematic arc for its characters, and isn't just about flashy action sequences or CGI mayhem. A precursor to the future success that would be Wonder Woman this year, there's visual and thematic poetry about a hope worth fighting for, and a dawn for true justice in saving others, maybe even the world. As Wayne tells us, "Men are still good. We fight. We kill. We betray one another. But we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to."

Come Together--For Real
Justice League was filmed during 2016, with post-production continuing into this year. The project had had a tumultuous production for years, dating back to 2007 when George Miller was attached to his own project but never fell through. Then, after Snyder's general box-office success of Man of Steel and BvS (not to mention Marvel's ongoing film universe), a JL film was green-lit with returning stars Affleck (Batman), Cavill (Superman) and Gadot (Wonder Woman), as well as newcomers Ezra Miller (The Flash), Jason Mamoa (Aquaman), and Ray Fisher (Cyborg). But Snyder left the project in May this year for family purposes (his daughter had committed suicide back in February), and fellow director and Marvel-veteran Whedon was brought in for reshoots and new material.

The story takes place after the death of Superman, and the impending emergence of a greater threat known as Steppenwolf, complete with flying "Parademon" creatures. Bruce Wayne's faith in humanity, including saving others, is meanwhile being restored. And with the help of Diana Prince, he sets out to gather other "warriors" (meta-humans) in this ultimate battle.

(l-r) Ben Affleck (Batman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg),
Ezra Miller (The Flash), and Jason Mamoa (Aquaman) in Justice League
The resulting film (at least the current theatrical version) is a mixed-bag of two apparently conflicting visions, as well as another possible case of studio interference (read actress Margot Robbie's thoughts on the matter here). It's also in need of a better story. Don't get me wrong, I love the characters (Wonder Woman, The Flash and Aquaman, in particular, steal the show), and some of the dialogue is clever and witty ("What are your super powers again," asks a curious Barry Allen to Wayne. "I'm rich," responds the playboy billionaire.) And the action sequences, particularly when they all first fight together, are pretty cool ("All right," declares the underwater merman). But it's mostly escapist entertainment, episodic and lacking in much character development. It's almost devoid of the style that Snyder has become synonymous with, despite his slow-motion action, dark color palettes, and gritty tone still intact.

Plus, the stakes don't feel as high or intense as they should be a la the same level that Wonder Woman was on so brilliantly. Footage that includes the backstories of Barry Allen, Arthur Curry, and Victor Stone (Fisher is incredible), and more about other heroes like the gods and the Lanterns, as well as the "Mother Boxes," could of been needed, while keeping the appearance of Steppenwolf (a weak villain overall) at bay until the end--or, at least, to focus on the Parademons and a different adversary for this film. Lastly, Superman's return (no spoiler, really) could've waited until later. (Read writer Paul Asey's thoughts here.)

In fact, many DC fans signed an online petition for a "Zack Snyder Cut" of the film, with the director's original footage as well as original composer Junkie XL's score (Whedon brought in Elfman a week after the former took over). If this turns out to be true (and I hope it is), then count me in. (Check out this original trailer with footage and implied backstory to prove the point.) I mean, hey, if they can do the same with a "Richard Donner Cut" of Superman II (1981), a "Final Cut" of Blade Runner (1982), and of course an "Ultimate Edition" of BvS, they certainly could do it with this film.

Zack Snyder (right) on the set of Justice League,
with Ben Affleck (left) and Gal Gadot (center)
At least it's a step in a more hopeful direction. Again, the cast has a lot of camaraderie that makes me want to see them again in future installments; ditto for J.K. Simmons as Jim Gordon. (Mamoa will return as Aquaman in his own film due next December, and the Flash will have his own in 2020.)

A word of advice for DC's cinematic universes. Be sure to stick to the same tone and qualities that make your stories successful while letting each film stand on its own. Using Wonder Woman as a prime example, take these three things into account: 1) be gritty without being polarizing, 2) have thorough character investment, and 3) be humorous as long as its in the right places and for the right reasons.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

REVIEW: "Lady Bird," A Millennial Coming-Of-Age Story

Indie actress-writer Greta Gerwig became a breakout sensation in director Noah Baumbach's 2013 critical favorite Frances Ha, and she reunited with the celebrated filmmaker for 2015's Mistress America. This year, she made an impressive directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird.

Set in Sacramento, CA, in the early Aughts (2002, actually), "Lady Bird" is the "given" name that high school senior Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) chooses to go by. "It's given to me, by me," she tells us. A very passive-aggressive and occasionally rebellious character, Lady Bird wants to go to school(s) of her choice and experience culture of her choice, but feels held back by her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) as well as family finances, limited job opportunities in a post-9/11 America, and other personal and relational hardships.

The mother-daughter dynamic is central to Gerwig's script. Says Lady Bird's first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), "You're mom is very warm. But she's also kind of scary." "You can't be warm as scary at the same time," she says. "I think you can," continues Lucas. "You're mom is." This dialogue alone may sum up not only the love-hate relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Ronan and Metcalf play these out superbly in two of the year's best performances), but also the dynamics within Lady Bird herself, who continually seems to be vying for what she feels is ideally best. "You can't do anything unless you're the center of attention!" argues her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, sister of Jonah Hill).

Soairse Ronan and Greta Gerwig behind the scenes
Gerwig's screenplay is very spontaneous and quirky. It sort of recalls Diablo Cody's screenplay for Juno (2017) or any John Hughes movie with Molly Ringwald, in terms of its existential and teenage worldviews. Gerwig also emphasizes her character's growing hormones, disappointments, anarchism, and angst. The score by Jon Brion is equally quirky and fitting, but its perhaps that 90s soundtrack that'll make viewers feel nostalgic, with hits by Alanis Morrisette, Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, and even musical numbers by Stephen Sondheim.

Lady Bird certainly has its content issues, from its language to its sexual content (including an unnecessary intercourse, interrupted by, of all things, a nose bleed; not to mention brief but graphic images of a Playgirl magazine). To its credit, Lady Bird finds no real satisfaction in the latter; only disappointment. Because the story is partly set at a Catholic school, any negative view (let alone portrayal of) religious figures and teachers is surprisingly absent. They're instead portrayed as figures who are understanding and reverent. Although, some viewers may scoff at certain scenes at this school, such as Lady Bird and Julie snacking on communion wafers or placing a "Just Married to Jesus" sign on the back of a head nun's car (which said nun, played by the wonderful Lois Smith, ironically finds hilarious).

Yet, for all these flaws, there's a very compelling story about a young woman who wants to do what so many teenagers transitioning into adulthood think they want to do or should do. What makes Gerwig's story unique is that her main character does those things and is disappointed by them, and then she is reminded of who she is, where she comes from, and where she's going or could go. Two of my favorite scenes involve Lady Bird making the wise choice to spend what was initially a "date night," with her new friends and boyfriend, instead with her best friend. The other involves her waking up from a night of heavy drinking, realizing its Sunday, and going to a local morning mass, her eyes smeared with draining mascara.

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf
In a bittersweet conversation between Lady Bird and Marion in a clothing store, the former asks if her mother loves her, for real. "I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be," answers Marion. "What if this is the best version," Lady Bird asks, before slowly walking back into a changing room. Wow.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Post-"Home Alone" Nineties of John Hughes (and, What Can Be Learned From the Original Classic)

Home Alone was a surprise sleeper hit at the box-office when it was first released in November of 1990. Its success not only led to becoming the biggest comedy of all-time then (along with writer-producer John Hughes being named Producer of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners in 1991), but also, not surprisingly, guaranteed a sequel. And a sequel is what audiences and critics got in 1992's Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. This film celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. And while it does have its moments as well as most of the same cast and crew, the film is an unnecessary follow-up in so many ways.

In fact, the only reason Home Alone 2 exists (as is the case with so many sequels) is to play off the success of the original movie, and to obviously built on the growing success and star-power of then-child actor Macaulay Culkin. Film critic Leonard Maltin summarizes it best as "essentially a reworking of its smash-hit predecessor, but it manages to be even more violent." It was also the first of many copycat films that occupied "family entertainment" throughout the 1990s, some of which were penned and produced by Hughes as well. These films included Dennis the Menace (1993), Baby's Day Out (1994), the second sequel Home Alone 3 (1997), and even the remakes of Disney classics 101 Dalmatians (1996) and Flubber (1997).

The same formula is still intact: the McCallister clan accidentally leave behind the black sheep of the family, Kevin, said child fends off two burglars, and the rest is history. Only here, he makes it to the airport with them but gets on the wrong plane after a mix-up. This lands him in New York, to the Plaza Hotel, and encounters with a snooty concierge and bellman (Tim Curry and Rob Schneider, respectfully, are scene stealers), a mysterious bird lady a la Old Man Marley (Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker), and a kind-hearted toy store owner (Eddie Bracken a.k.a. Roy Walley). Many could argue that the film's title is misleading, as Kevin is not really "home alone"--he's alone, for sure, but elsewhere.

The film does have its moments, what with Culkin, his signature wardrobe and demeanor, and his trusty Talkboy recorder (a must-have among 90s kids around many Christmas's or birthdays). He even peaks through a mail slot at one point, recalling his famous interrogation of a potential babysitter in Uncle Buck. There's also some clever meta humor referencing events from the first movie, such as rushing to the airport, ordering cheese pizza, and burglars slightly stepping aside from light switches in case something falls down after turning them on. And Kevin's montage through New York for the first time, atop the Twin Towers, is a winner.

However, the sentimentality and dilemmas here feel forced and unconvincing--they're more like cartoon scenarios and not real concerns, from Christmas trees to family conflicts to kind-hearted strangers and Kevin discussing the meaning of life. The late Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "If he [Kevin] believes half of what he says [in these latter moments], he'd give the crooks a break."

Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern
That being said, it shouldn't be surprising that Kevin does indeed encounter and battle the same crooks, the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern), as before. (After all, what would Home Alone be without them?) And they're both, this time, a strange combination of dim-witted, dopey, cartoony, and vengeful, as they plan a huge holiday heist at a popular toy store. Kevin's response? "You can mess with a lot of things, but you can't mess with kids on Christmas." Furthermore, instead of defending his home with the ever-popular booby traps, Kevin uses another place (his uncle's in the Big Apple) to lure the burglars in as an excuse to set the traps off on them. (Likewise, it wouldn't be Home Alone without the traps.) The same goes for the silly and cartoony motif of adults constantly getting outsmarted by plucky kids--and badly mauled in the process ("Don't you know and kid always wins against two idiots").

One of the biggest criticisms the original film received was its level of violence, which Maltin described as "a bit extreme." Lost in New York takes those "extremes" to a whole new level, becoming more sadistic, dark, dangerous, and even weird in the process. Instead of just paint cans and toy cars, there are kerosene explosions, staple guns, electrocuted sinks, metal pipes and bricks to the face, two-story falls, and so on. So much so, that it gets to the point of feeling abusive and menacing, including a gun being pulled out on a child in an act of vengeance. Interestingly, YouTube channel "Screen Junkies" consulted a real-life medical doctor to describe the effects of violence that would maim or kill Pesci and Stern's characters in real life from both films.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage that the first Home Alone had (at least on the box-office and on Hollywood) was the belief that a "family comedy" needed to have Three Stooges-style slapstick in order to be a hit--which would explain the aforementioned films Hughes gave us in the decade, Here are three other reasons why these other post-Home Alone comedies don't work.

1. Along with the aforementioned levels of violence (which got darker and more sadist), the expectations towards and timing of these gags got more and more so, enabling audiences to predict what would conventionally happen. With each subsequent film, the results proved to be ill-timed, overwhelming and tiring.

2. Also with each subsequent film, the protagonists seemed to age down, while adults (like Mr. Wilson, Switchblade Sam, and Jasper & Horace) would continue to be the butt of the joke. Ironic, considering Hughes had been known for portraying teenagers as real people. From pre-teenagers (Curly SueDennis the Menace) to babies (Baby's Day Out), Hughes even converted to characters like animals (101 Dalmatians) and bouncing green goo (Flubber). This may have had an influence on other films in the decade like the 1997 feature Mousehunt.

3. Because of this trend, Hughes would appeal to the lowest common denominator of entertainment. A writer for stated, "Critics, in turn, felt [Hughes] had traded his sharp writing and dialogue [from his teen movies of the 80s] for crude, broad-based humor."

Macaulay Culkin
There's a moment in Home Alone 2 where Kevin says, "I don't ever want to take a vacation like this again." In retrospect, many viewers probably wouldn't want to either, as, again, the same slapstick formula came to no real effective extent. Culkin, the following year, would star in the dark thriller The Good Son, followed by the live-action/animated fantasy The Pagemaster in 1994. He briefly retired from acting after that year, and never returned to the Home Alone universe since (save for an episode of the web series "DRYVRS" two years ago).

Hughes, meanwhile, never directed again after 1991's Curly Sue. He reportedly turned his back on Hollywood and, by the latter part of the decade, gave up making movies. He still wrote several scripts, including the widely-unseen Reach the Rock (1998), during the last decade of his life before his unexpected passing in 2009. His final film credit (as a story-writer) was the 2008 Judd Apatow-produced Drillbit Taylor starring Owen Wilson. Nevertheless, Hughes has had an indelible influence on several filmmakers and actors with his now-iconic films from the 80s, including Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) and Uncle Buck (1989).

To conclude this post on a nostalgic note, here are a few reasons the original Home Alone still holds up from all the rest.

1. Its script is actually well-written and structured. Its premise is simple, yet there's a timeless quality that permeates the cinematography (courtesy Julio Macat) and season. Much of the dialogue is also very Hughes-ian and witty, even though we know it's silly.

2. Its casting remains ideal. Along with a breakout Culkin and bandits Pesci and Stern, there's Catherine O'Hera and the late John Heard as Kevin's parents, late veteran character actor Roberts Blossom as the forbidding neighbor (his scene in the church is a standout moment), and the late John Candy in a cameo as a polka musician. Home Alone was also a turning point in director Chris Columbus's career, and he went on to direct other hits as Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and the first two Harry Potters (2001-02), as well as produce the Oscar-winning The Help (2011).

Director Chris Columbus and Macaulay Culkin on the set of Home Alone (1990)
3. The gags and humor are clever and unexpected, despite being "a bit extreme" (Leonard Maltin) and in an occasionally scary atmosphere. Even though we know much of this stuff wouldn't happen in real life, we believe Culkin's confident and committed performance through it all.

4. Its sentimentality is, to a degree, believable and even tear-jerking, thanks in part to John Williams' unforgettable score (displaying the same effect his music had on Jaws).

In retrospect, the original Home Alone was Hughes' last true hit, and its appeal as an iconic film beyond box-office numbers continues to this day, for better or worse.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Films of 2017: Potential Awards Contenders

We're officially in the early stages of awards season for acclaimed films that have been (and those that have yet to be) released in 2017. As usual, there are the arthouse favorites among critics from this year's film festivals, as well as those that are released at the end of the year--and which sometimes overshadow releases from as far back as February.

The following is not so much a list of what I think are the best films of the year (though there are some exceptions), but rather an overview and understanding of some of the films that have been released, and those that have yet to be this year. Now, I haven't seen all of these movies, nor every film that's not included in this list. And I don't plan to. And yet, I do believe, as a film buff and writer, that it's important (especially for film buffs) to be involved in the conversation, and to bring forth discernment and understanding of where the culture, the film community, and of course the world, is at. I also believe that films still have the ability to inspire and to challenge, especially if they're done for the right reasons.

Two questions we can ask in the conversation include, what exactly do these films stand for? And are they actually worth seeing?

Blade Runner 2049
Director Denis Villeneuve's mind-blowing follow-up to Ridley Scott's iconic sci-fi film from the 80s centers on a futuristic cop (Ryan Gosling) tracking down a missing Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). At least, that's what the plot seems like. An ambiguous story bursting with mystery and VFX throughout, many believe that cinematographer Roger Deakins might as well be given a long-overdue Oscar for his visual work here.

Call Me By Your Name
Following the success of Barry Jenkins' Moonlight last year, this film is the latest LGBT romance, centered on a young student who falls for an intern in the Italian countryside in the early-1980s. Stars Armie Hammer and breakout star Timothee Chalamet (who also co-stars in Lady Bird).

Darkest Hour
Biopic from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) of newly-elected British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during early-WWII. Stars Gary Oldman in what many are calling a stellar and incredible performance. (Opens December 22.)

The Disaster Artist
Outrageous-but-true story behind the making of 2003's The Room, which many consider "the worst movie ever made". James Franco (who also directed) plays the real-life Tommy Wiseau in what is already being hailed as a career-defining performance. This is one of the most interesting and strangest films I've seen in recent years.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) goes big-scale with the story of a community of people that shrinks down for the sake of economical and environmental progression. Matt Damon is one of the many citizens who goes through with it. (Opens December 22.)

The Florida Project
Dramedy about a precocious six-year-old girl who has mischievous and fun adventures with her friends and her loving-but-irresponsible mother in cheap motel outskirts of Florida near Disney World. Willem Dafoe humbly and terrifically plays the hotel manager, while irresistible newcomer Brooklyn Prince nearly steals the show. An equally-irresistible charm doesn't change the fact that the film enters into disturbing and sad territory.

I, Tonya
Wild true story of the infamous scandal involving disgraced Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and attempts to show multiple perspectives--er, the key players' "own truth" about what happened. Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan and Allison Janney star. (Opens December 8.)

Lady Bird
Directorial debut of indie actress Greta Gerwig (who also wrote the script) about a rebellious teenage girl in a post-9/11 America, as she explores social status, sex, drugs, and Dave Matthews music. Gerwig's script is quirky and insightful (as well as existential and troubling), with believable performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

Phantom Thread
Reportedly Daniel Day-Lewis's final role, director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest chronicles a renowned dressmaker in 1950's London. (Opens December 25.)

The Post
Steven Spielberg directs Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in this true story of the Washington Post unraveling the cover-up, of the Vietnam War, that spanned four U.S. Presidencies. The National Board of Review recently named this the best film of 2017. (In limited release December 22, opens nationwide January 12.)

The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro's latest fantasy-thriller is set during the Cold War, as a mute cleaning lady discovers (and falls hard for) a mysterious sea creature. The winner of the "Golden Lion award" (the equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar) at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, this looks impeccably designed and executed (not to mention acted, with an endearing Sally Hawkins), but there's questionable sensuality involved. (Opens December 8.)

True story of Boston Marathon survivor Jeff Bauman and his ongoing recovery and inspiration. Pulls no punches when it comes to raw emotion, for better and for worse. Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslanay and Miranda Richardson give some of the year's best performances.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Dark and violent comic drama about a single mother who rents three billboards to deliver a provocative message to the supposedly unconcerned police nine months after her daughter's murder. Third feature film from English playwright Martin McDonaugh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), with hard-as-nails performances, especially from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell. An angry and maddening film.

It's easy to see why critics would be raving over these kinds of films. But what about the other films that came out earlier in the year? Well, here are a few that critics are still talking about from then, or, in some cases, should.

Baby Driver 
Edgar Wright's ode to all things music, iPods, and fast car chases. Breakout Ansel Elgort leads an impeccable cast (although it is hard to think about this film in light of co-star Kevin Spacey's recent allegations), and a diverse range of tunes forms a killer soundtrack. (Read my review here.)

The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola's haunting period drama-thriller is about a girls school in Virginia (led by Nicole Kidman), during the American Civil War, who take in a mysterious Union soldier (Colin Farrell).

The Big Sick
Writers (and real-life couple) Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon autobiographically recount their romance, her unexpected medical condition, and his relationships with his Pakistani family and her parents, respectfully.

Christopher Nolan's groundbreaking war epic chronicles various perspectives of Operation Dynamo during early-WWII, complete with impressive IMAX footage and a fully-immersive cast. (Read my review here.)

Get Out
Comedian Jordan Peele's directorial debut is an intriguing and creepy horror-thriller, as well as social commentary on race relations, as an young black man goes with his Caucasian girlfriend to visit her parents for the weekend. Of course, things get weird from there, and then some. (Read my review here.)

The Lego Batman Movie
The Lego movie universe expands into a spinoff of everyone's favorite Caped Crusader (in toy brick form). Both a parody and arguably a balance between the campy comedy and dark characteristics of the character, the film succeeds. (Read my review here.)

The famed X-Men character Wolverine goes out with a big bang in James Mangold's violent, bruising, and compelling western-esque drama of a lost man (Hugh Jackman's final outing as the clawed mutant), his ailing mentor (Patrick Stewart's final outing, too, as Charles Xavier), and a mysterious young girl with similar abilities. (Read my review here.)

War for the Planet of the Apes
Continuing where Dawn left off (in 2014 film), War showcases the surviving ape colonies against the last threat of humanity--in this case, totalitarian and cold-hearted military leaders. Motion capture technology hits another high point, and it really pays off with emotional range, courtesy director Matt Reeves and mocap veteran Andy Serkis.

Wonder Woman
Kudos to director Patty Jenkins and breakout star Gal Gadot for so many things Wonder Woman. Not only is this the highest-grossing female-led action movie of all-time, but it's also the first DC universe film to get it right. If anything, this film, more than any other this year, challenges the notion of whether the world and people are worth saving, despite their/our shortcomings and failures. As one character says, "It's not about 'deserve.' It's about what you believe." (Read my review here.)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

REVIEW: Overall Thrills of "Stranger Things 2" Are Still In Tact, Despite

When it premiered on Netflix last year, Stranger Things took a lot of people (including yours truly) by surprise. As an affectionate love letter to Eighties pop culture and movies (particularly of the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genres, courtesy Steven Spielberg and Stephen King), series creators Matt and Ross Duffer made a zeitgeist that also stood on its own with compelling stories of small town police chiefs, secretive government agents, a broken family looking for a lost boy, friends who stand up to bullies, and an unusual girl with telekinetic abilities named Eleven.

Since the teaser  for Season Two premiered during the Super Bowl earlier this year, I've eagerly been awaiting to see what would be in store for Chief Hopper, Joyce Byers, Mike Wheeler and company. When it finally premiered last month, I did something that I never do. (And I mean never.) I binge-watched the entire season within 27 hours!

A few questions I had, between both seasons, were as follows: What is that big thing Will begins seeing that's coming into Hawkins? (The 2017 Comic-Con trailer finds Hopper stating, "Whatever's happening is spreading to this place.") Speaking of Hopper, what deal did he make with the agents? And finally, what happened to Eleven?

Millie Bobbie Brown does return as Eleven. And she still loves Eggos.
WRITER'S NOTE: I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, especially for fans who haven't seen this season yet.

Set one year after the events of Season One, Upside Down-survivor Will Byers begins having premonitions of not only said place, but also of an impending evil force in the sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana. And, of course, the same cast of characters, plus new ones like Radioshack owner Bob (Sean Astin), high-score arcader Max (Sadie Sink), and some unexpected allies try to figure out what's going on, along with mysteries behind rotting pumpkin patches, government conspiracies, telepathic connections, some gender theories, and why nougat is a popular Halloween candy. (Okay, maybe not so much that last one.)

A few things this season does are completely unexpected. Besides the "One Year Later" notion, Eleven (the amazing Millie Bobby Brown) does return--the trailers make that very clear. This time, she sports Sigourney Weaver-like hair! Plus, she and Will (who was barely in the first season) seem to switch roles, in terms of being around the three main kids/friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard, whose screen time this season seems like Michael Keaton's in Batman Returns), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Speaking of Dustin and Lucas, we do get to see their home lives and family lives as well.

And of course, since this series is set in the Eighties, I went gaga for the countless nostalgia and homages on display. First and foremost, the Ghostbusters costumes that Mike and friends wear for Halloween, complete with specially-made "proton packs," are a stroke of genius, including the dialogue where Mike and Lucas banter and argue about who should be Venkman and who should be Winston. Also, the residue Hopper and others find in the woods could echo that scene in the original movie, in the library and possibly the famous Slimer ghost. Speaking of residue, there are echoes of many creature features as Gremlins, Aliens, The Mist, and even Evil Dead, what with shocking revelations, more creatures, more menace, and more action and effects, including the aforementioned creature Will begins seeing, known as the "Shadow Monster" (or, in "Dungeons & Dragons" terms, the Mind Flayer"). Plus, classic arcade games like "Dragon's Lair" get some screen time, as does Eleven's favorite food, Eggos, Dustin's favorite, Three Musketeers (nougat, anybody?), and JVC tape recorders and adapters. Finally, with Sean Astin's appearance, there should be a reference or two to his famous role in The Goonies. (Why wouldn't there be in the Eighties, after all?)

Who you gonna call? (l-r) Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard),
Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will (Noah Schnapp)
This season does seem a little conventional in terms of some of the writing and execution. Perhaps it tries to do too much? Perhaps the playlist of popular songs is a bit much? Perhaps there's a little too much emphasis on different love triangles and relationship statuses, not to mention a disappointing bit of sexual tension between some of these characters? Well, it kind of is from the first three episodes. (That KFC reference sure felt like a product plug.) After that, though, things start getting back on track. One thing that sticks out from the first episode, though, is the opening segment, three nights before Halloween, where a group of vigilante punks are on a hit-and-run police chase a la The Dark Knight-meets-Blade Runner-meets-Mad Max, until things take a different turn--and a possible connection to a certain character.

As far as the status of the show's returning characters, what I will say is they do explore different sides of themselves. (One episode, in particular, takes a radical departure from the overall tone of the series--a deliberate choice by the Duffers.) Again, Eleven does return, but not in the way most fans would think. There are some children here, particularly newcomers Billy (Power Rangers' Dacre Montgomery) and step-sister Max (The Glass Castle's Sadie Sink), affected by divorce, and who show more than explain who they take their anger and frustration out on. But there's uncertainty about other characters, such as Bob (considering a story he tells Will about facing his fears) and new Hawkins' Lab head Dr. Owens (who seems to echo a famous role of the actor who plays him, Paul Reiser, from Aliens), what with his surveillance and apparent cover ups of past mistakes.

Many other characters face post-traumatic stress, including Nancy (over her friend, Barb), Mike (over Eleven, whom he still radios via walkie-talkie everyday), and, of course, certainly Will, who never feels the same, not to mention "normal," after being in the Upside Down. But his brother Jonathan reassures that ("Nobody normal ever accomplished anything in this world"), as does his mom, Joyce ("This is not a normal family," she tells Bob). Mr. Clark, the Hawkins science teacher and A.V. supervisor, mentions "The American Crowbar Case" of Phineas Gage, the story of a man who survived a head injury and appeared normal afterwards but not so, mentally.

Something new is coming to Hawkins
Everybody tries to live normal lives, but nothing feels right. As Hopper says, "Nothing's going to go back to the way it was. Not really." At the same time, because these characters are confronted by aforementioned past mistakes, they either seek to leave them, hide them, burn them (like the lab agents do; don't ask), face them, or, in one case, expose them. In any of these cases, it's intriguing to see the many ways these characters communicate without words, whether through T.V.s, radios, drawings, Morse Code (again, don't ask), and RadioShack recorder. Ultimately, these stories of outcasts and adolescence still speak strong, despite being in a sci-fi/horror mesh of a world.

This season does suffer from a case of "sequel-itis" at times (meaning, "more is better"), as well as some less witty (and more profane) dialogue. Eleven's vocabulary, for one, includes a new vulgarity. I do also think the season kind of plays it safe at times and rushes just a tad without some serious conflict, despite the overall atmosphere--darker and more intense, especially with the "Demo-dogs" and the overarching Shadow Monster. (Chapter Seven has some particularly graphic images, including one they really didn't need to show.) But the Duffer Brothers sure know how to pack an emotional and cliffhanging punch, not to mention unexpected twists. Here's to whatever they come up with for Season 3.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

$UCCESSFU! FILMS SERIES: What "The Hobbit" Films Should and Should Not Have Done

When author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" in the 1930s, he had written it as a fantasy adventure for his children. Little did he know that it would not only set the stage for other characters and stories in his created world of "Middle-Earth" (notably "The Lord of the Rings" and the posthumous "The Silmarillion"), but it also established a contemporary mythology that would echo stories, legends, and character types of yesteryear.

When director Peter Jackson began adapting the Lord of the Rings in the late 1990s, he and his cast and crew embarked on what would turn out to be a seven-year journey to bring Tolkien's literary trilogy to the big screen. Little did they know that it would not only set a benchmark in film history (no trilogy had ever been filmed simultaneously, and no fantasy film had ever won the Best Picture Acdemy Award), but it also set the stage for fantasy films of the 21st Century. (Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?)

After Rings, Jackson went on to direct and co-produce other projects, including his lifelong-dream remake of King Kong (2005), an adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones (2009), Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi apartheid directorial debut District 9 (2009), and Steven Spielberg's motion-capture take on Herge's The Adventures of Tintin (2011). In the mean time, Jackson's visual effects company Weta Digital participated in various other films, including the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy (2011-2017), Furious 7 (2015), Krampus (2015), and Pete's Dragon (2016).

Peter Jackson behind the scenes
Then in 2010, after initial helmer Guillermo del Toro (2006's Pan's Labyrinth) stepped down due to reported production delays, Jackson took over directing reigns of the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of The Hobbit. Initially planned to be made into two movies, Jackson brought in many of the same crew from Lord of the Rings, including co-writers and co-producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, production designer Dan Hannah, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, composer Howard Shore, and head of Weta Workshop Richard Taylor. Del Toro would remain credited as a project consultant. Returning cast members would included Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saraman), Ian McKellan (Gandalf), and Andy Serkis (Gollum, who steals the iconic "Riddles in the Dark" sequence), while newcomers Martin Freeman (a younger Bilbo) and Richard Armitage (Thorin) would join in. Serkis would eventually serve as the project's Second Unit Director.

Jackson, Walsh and Boyens' contributions to the screenplay partly came from appendices of The Lord of the Rings, which expand Tolkien's Middle-Earth. The backstory of the dwarves, and their once-glorious kingdom under the mountain, are used as a prologue to the first Hobbit film, titled An Unexpected Journey. It not only showcases their greed and obsession with gold, but also the effects it has on the local people of Dale, as well as other races. Jealousy and destruction soon appear in the form of the dragon Smaug, who decimates the town of Dale and leads to the downfall of the race of dwarves. Their mission in Tolkien's story and in this film: to take back the fallen kingdom. But to do this impossible task, they will need some help--particularly, a burglar to sneak in.

Which leads us to Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who finds comfort and safety in his home in the ground, and is not motivated by adventures of any kind. At least until the great wizard Gandalf comes knocking on his door, followed by thirteen mighty dwarves, and convinces him to take the journey. (It's curious but sort of understandable that only half of these dwarves, led by Thorin, are given more screen time and development than the rest of the supposedly-caricatured bunch.) At the same time, there's a greater, darker power resurfacing in Middle-earth than just Smaug, beginning with the mysterious Necromancer, as investigated by the eccentric wizard Radagast.

The overall moral in this story is that adventure is not found in the comforts of home, but out there in the world. To be sure, danger is inevitable, but courage and bravery are necessary. Therefore, facing the world and seeing what one is really made of, and yet recognizing where one comes from. "Home is now behind you," Gandalf tells us. "The world is ahead."

My initial reaction to An Unexpected Journey was that it was entertaining, well-made, and had terrific nostalgia and homages to the original film trilogy. It was also impeccably cast, with Martin, Armitage and McCoy as standouts, followed by Evans and Cumberbatch (who perfectly and chillingly voices Smaug) in the second and third films. And Lee turned in what would turn out to be his last screen role, reprising Saruman.

Yet, despite being based on essentially a children's novel, Jackson had no interest in making a film strictly for children. This is one of the many choices and changes that makes the film quite dark and violent. And the other two films in this now-trilogy (2013's The Desolation of Smaug and 2014's The Battle of the Five Armies) prove this point, as well as with many significant liberties and and connections more to Jackson's original film trilogy than to Tolkien's original book. Little did Jackson and company (and moviegoers) know that the overall reception for this trilogy would be lukewarm, to say the least.

When The Desolation of Smaug came out, I began to loose faith in these films. For one thing, Weta Digital certainly went to great lengths to make knock-out visual effects sequences, and there are certainly worthy moments and meaningful themes at times, such as the impressive animation of Smaug and the designs of Laketown and the halls of Erebor. But they're upstaged by the aforementioned (and prolonged) sequences and VFX shots, not to mention an "unexpected" and sudden climax to the chapter. I had hopes that the third film (originally titled "There and Back Again," like the original subtitle of the book) would deliver a more satisfying outing. And yet, when film three did arrive (and with a new title, The Battle of the Five Armies), the result was initially a forgettable experience (in the book, the battle lasts one chapter, whereas in the film, it's nearly 45 minutes), and proved that this "prequel trilogy" was slowly-but-surely declining, and surely divisive. Jackson admitted that the Hobbit trilogy's lukewarm reception was partially due to him coming so late into pre-production with only three months to plan. (Compare that to the reported three years Jackson and company spent preparing the Lord of the Rings trilogy).

That's not to say The Hobbit was a terrific experience, as the "Production Diaries" filmed between 2011 and 2012 in New Zealand showcased. These videos are, without a doubt, the highlight of the making of these films, as well as an amazing transition into a new decade for Tolkien's stories and epic fantasy worlds.

To be fair, Jackson felt he had made the right choice to expand the story into a trilogy in order to, by request to the studios (New Line and MGM), plan out the climactic "battle." I recently viewed all three films (almost) back-to-back and now believe that Five Armies is actually an emotionally-effecting, though at times overbearing, conclusion to Tolkien's classic. What these films could have used was a little old-fashioned restraint.

Here are four things that I would have eliminated or reduced, and which would've resulted in two films instead of three.

1. The villainous orc Azog. They should've eliminated the climax of An Unexpected Journey and saved that for The Battle of the Five Armies for Thorin to have a proper face-off with this vengeful adversary, whereas the gang would've transitioned better from the goblin tunnels to Beorn's house. (Although, Bilbo's bravery is commendable and amazing in the resulted sequence.)

2. Speaking of sequences, the barrel escape from Mirkwood definitely has roller coaster thrills, but the elves (including Legolas) and the orcs intervening and fighting should've been left out. The same goes for the aforementioned goblin tunnel chase, the spiders of Mirkwood (which seem more swarmy compared with the nightmarish Shelob), and the other armies and prolonged fights in the climactic Battle, what with the Tremors-like"earth eaters," bats, an icy lake, and a Legolas/orc battle that defies gravity. And then there's the length of the hall fight with Smaug--although, the focus of this sequence was the dwarves' attempt to kill the beast. (The buildup to this character's presence is effective, but it soon outstays its welcome.)

Gollum (top) and Smaug (bottom) are motion-capture marvels
3. The romance between dwarf Kili and elf Tauriel (a character made for the movies, due to an apparent lack of female characters in Tolkien's novels), as well as a subtle love triangle involving Legolas the elf (who is not in "The Hobbit" book); the same goes for the subtle romance between Gandalf and Lady Galadriel. If they had made Tauriel a companion to the dwarves and not so much a love interest, that would've been stronger and less forced.

4. The emphasis on the subplot about the darkness resurfacing in Middle-Earth, which results in Sauron, causes the same mistake that George Lucas's Star Wars prequel trilogy made: Said subplot tells you what happens in the original trilogy, and you loose the excitement in chronological order. The shifts that An Unexpected Journey makes midway through (and which Desolation does a lot) distract from what should be the primary story--that of Bilbo Baggins and his quest with the Dwarves, as well as the impact the quest has on Middle-Earth. If this latter subplot would've been the sole one (plus the theme of "dragon sickness" and not so much the Ring's growing power over Bilbo), then the films would've been a whole lot better.

As movies on their own, they're entertaining in many ways. But compared with the book, they're completely different. Unlike the original trilogy, which began with miniature sets and grounded visual effects, these films use CGI extensively; they're easily fake in such settings as Dol Guldur and the Elven city in Mirkwood. It even got to the point where Ian McKellan wasn't acting alongside the other actors for much of the time, instead of with the "forced perspective" technique they used for The Fellowship of the Ring. The overall production design is spectacular and very Tolkien-esque, from Rivendale to the goblin tunnels to Laketown to Erebor to the ruins of Dale to the illustrated credits. But the effect (and some of the humor) is far from it--overbearing, dark, menacing, and violent.

At least Tolkien's themes are still intact and remain strong, including a misguided sense of loss, and the cost of greed, war and destruction. And filmgoers can't go wrong with the "Song of the Lonely Mountain," a motif throughout the first film that should've resurfaced in the other films. This is, after all, the emotional arc of the dwarves and their journey. It's fair to say Jackson has (hopefully) learned from the mistakes of these films, and will hopefully carry that into his next project, whether the next Tintin or whichever project that may be. As for Tolkien's original works, they will remain timeless and definitive.

A great, quiet moment between Bilbo and Gandalf