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The Film Shelf

By Sawyer Jackson
On May 29, 2017

The Film Shelf

The Film Shelf is a blog centered around all things cinema authored by  me, Sawyer Jackson, The Agora's unofficial film critic and cinephile. This spot is reserved for reviewing films released during the intervening time between semesters (such as summer, for example) or reviews to lengthy to be printed in the paper. I've been obsessed with the movies for as long as I can remember. They are works of art I love to experience as well as to share with other people. This blog allows me to express my opinions and interact with readers.


"Justice League" Review: A Small Step in the Right Direction

Published on November 15, 2017


There isn’t a franchise today as reactionary as the DC Extended Universe. People didn’t take to the excessive carnage and Superman’s carelessness in the battle of Metropolis, so “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” goes out its way to constantly point out how there are no civilians present during Superman’s fight with Doomsday. However, audiences again rejected that film’s overtly serious tone, and “Suicide Squad” was reconfigured in post-production to closely reflect the upbeat tone of the trailer only for the movie end up feeling like a two-hour trailer. “Wonder Woman,” on the other hand, was left untainted by a studio desperately trying to course correct. It’s a film with a singular vision, and that vision best suited the character. If “Wonder Woman” represents what the DC movies will look like moving forward, then “Justice League” closes the door on the previously established template.

Director Zack Snyder’s ensemble film suffers from the same problems as his previous two DC efforts. The villains is poor, the structure (especially in the beginning) is disjointed, and the story feels hollow, which results in a lack of emotional investment. However, where the film truly shines is the Justice League themselves, with each character given their standout moment and all the actors fitting breezily into their roles, while also having terrific chemistry. It may be a massive stepdown from “Wonder Woman,” but Snyder’s film works best at getting you on board with these heroes and excited to see where they go next.

Sometime after the events of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is now vulnerable to new threats due to the death of Superman (Henry Cavill).With his newfound faith in humanity, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) alongside Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) work to recruit other metahumans such as Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to combat the imminent threat of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hands) who, with his army of Parademons, seeks to collect the three Mother Boxes on Earth, whose combined power could devastate all life on the planet.

If you’re wondering what exactly these three Mother Boxes can do, I can’t tell you. Even a lifelong comic book fan such as myself has difficulty explaining. Though there are certainly multiple scenes where characters exposit the capabilities of the alien MacGuffins, it all feels like a bunch of techno babble. The thing is this is only emblematic of a larger problem. “Justice League’s” narrative is incredibly rushed. The first act of the film feels out of sync, like there is a lack of causality and forward momentum. This problem does subside as the story progresses, but initially, I was concerned we were in for another “Dawn of Justice” scenario where individual scenes are just come and go without any impact.

One of the areas where this hurts the film the most is the villain. Steppenwolf is yet another generic villain with no nuances or intriguing motivations. He is about as surface level as villains in superhero movies tend to come by these days. The fact that he is even the main antagonist of the story already cripples our level of interest in him. In the comics, Steppenwolf is subservient to Darkseid, the tyrannical ruler of the planet Apokolips. By even putting him in this movie, the filmmakers are basically saying, “This guy is just an appetizer for the REAL villain. No need to waste your time investing in him.” On a side note, DC seriously needs to stop it with the CG antagonist already. It didn’t work with the last three films, and it definitely doesn’t work now.

On top of that, the stakes in this story just do not work. Yes, the world is under threat, but it hardly ever feels that way. Outside of the core team and an occasional scene in a desolate town where the climax takes place, the world seems largely unaffected by the drama unfolding. The action can certainly be thrilling and have a few inspiring moments (especially when the CGI doesn’t come off as cartoonish), but never is there a sense of danger for any of the characters. Even the point towards the end of the second act where the team is supposed to be at their lowest moment is not caused by circumstances spiraling out of their control, but more by their gross negligence.

Maybe these pacing and structural problems could have been relieved has the film been about 15 minutes longer (it clocks in at just two hours), but as it stands, “Justice League throws way too much information at you and expects you to keep up. This would be like if in “The Avengers,” the characters would constantly explain the nature of the Infinity Stones, and Thanos’ origin. Such complex concepts need to be carefully explained to audiences.

Yet despite all these disadvantages, when the film is strictly character-centric, it’s an utter delight to watch. Zack Snyder hasn’t exactly done justice (no pun intended) to the iconic heroes thus far, what with his Superman being a scowling, mopey, selfish Dr. Manhattan-ish alien detached from the human condition, or his Batman being an angry, murderous, psychotic xenophobe, or his Wonder Woman who was just there in “Dawn of Justice” to look cool until Patty Jenkins came along and made her a three-dimensional character. But here, he drops the self-important gravitas of his two previous DC entries and allows the characters to hue close to their comic book counterparts.

While much has already been said about the established players Affleck and Gadot (the latter is still the brightest spot of this cinematic universe), the three newcomers, despite not having solo films prior to this (Aquaman’s hits theaters next December), all leave lasting impressions. Jason Momoa’s gruff, masculine take on Aquaman miraculously never feels as obnoxious as it should, instead it feels oddly charming. Although Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is more integral to the plot than to the team, he is responsible for a few of the film’s emotional beats and his interactions with his fellow teammates, especially Diana, work well.

The real breakout character though is The Flash. Ezra Miller’s wide-eyed giddiness is so affectionate, and he is easily the best of the newly introduced heroes. Much of the film’s humor comes from him, and he bounces off the other actors better than anyone else. Though the biggest question mark heading into the film has to be Superman. The character sacrificed himself at the end of “Dawn of Justice,” and he’s been mostly absent from the marketing campaign. Unless you didn’t see the final shot of “Batman v. Superman,” it isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Superman does indeed return in this film. The method of his resurrection I’ll leave out, but when he does come back, for the first time, Henry Cavill is finally allowed to give an actual performance as Superman

The conflict is that this works two different way. We at long last get to see a proper Superman performance by Cavill. He portrays everything Superman is supposed to be. Kind, noble, heroic, and full of optimism. In previous installments, Snyder kept the character at a distance so we were never able to identify with him or even understanding his inner-workings. Whether it’s because the director didn’t grasp the character or just flat-out disliked him (based on what I’ve seen thus far, I’m going to assume it was the latter), the point is there was a genuinely charismatic performance being suppressed, and the powers that be simply didn’t mind.

The downside is although Superman is allowed to be Superman, the film really wants us to believe that Superman has always been a beacon of hope and the world is worse off in his absence when that hasn’t been the case at all in this continuity. Snyder’s interpretation of Superman is a bully, one who would rather use force to solve problems than to try to resolve conflicts peacefully. He has no inspiring words of wisdom, and appears to care about Lois Lane, his mother, and absolutely nobody else. It’s not enough to just say he was an inspirational figure, we have to actually see him be inspiring.

While this functions sort of as a soft reboot for the character, ignoring past mistakes is taking the easy way out. I don’t want those films, as much I dislike them, to be ignored. There has to be effort. There needs to be a follow-up to actively resolve those issues. As much of joy it is to see the Superman we all know and love finally on screen again, the path getting here has been messy, and ultimately unsatisfying.

I really do wish I had liked “Justice League” more. I will always chose to see a good movie over a bad or underwhelming one any day. It does deliver on the spectacle and it most likely leave wanting to see more of these character. However, when there is such a diverse slate of superhero films every year, being competent fluff simply isn’t good enough. As it appears that Zack Snyder’s vision for this cinematic universe has drawn its last breath, there is hope going forward that these movies can have characters we can empathize with, stories we can be enthralled by, and messages of hope and heroism that resonate everywhere. I can’t wait until I’m able to write about them.

 



"It" Review: No Losers Here

Published on September 12, 2017


Growing up isn’t easy. At a time in your life, you come to realize that your parents and other adult figures aren’t always going to be able to protect you from the larger world, which feels especially intimidating during adolescence.

When you’re on the cusp of adulthood, you find that society has already let you down. There seem to be bullies at every turn, adults appear to be ambivalent towards your struggles, and if you live in a small town, it threatens to crush your individuality. However, that doesn’t mean you have to suffer through these trials alone, and that’s what lies at the heart of Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s coming-of-age classic novel.

There’s a haunting, sinister force that seeks to destroy our main characters, but they choose to unify and face the danger nobody else will. “It” works wonderfully as an energetic spook-a-blast, and even as a comedy, but it truly excels as childhood tale about the loss of innocence, love, grief, and friendship.

It’s 1989. The town of Derry, Maine feels like any other small town. Except it has dark, violent history that seems to keep repeating itself. In this town are seven youngsters: Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with a stutter whose younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) vanished the year prior. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid in town who struggles with weight issues and spends his days reading away in the library.

 Bev (Sophia Lillis), a poor girl who lives with her sexually-abusive father. Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the wisecracker with a dirty-mouth. Stan (Wyatt Oleff), a Jewish germaphobe who is the most pragmatic of the group. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) the home-schooled kid who lives with his farmer grandfather after his parents die in a fire. Finally Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a hypochondriac with an overprotective mother.

These children are all very different and not all of them are friends when the story begins. But they have one thing in common: They’ve all had encounters with an otherworldly being in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), who is connected to not just Derry’s horrific past, but also the disappearances of several of the town’s residents. Banning together to form The Losers’ Club, the kids must uncover the mystery behind Pennywise and stop It once and for all.

It’s cliché to say that the setting feels like a supporting character in a film, but this is especially true of Derry. Superficially, it feels like a typical quaint, little town thriving with small businesses and inhabited mostly by nuclear families.

Underneath that, however, Derry is oppressive, soul-crushing, and indifferent to any kind of suffering. Just the way flyers for missing children are casually pinned atop one another conveys the town’s insensitivity is enough to feel like all hope is lost for our protagonists.

Riddled with bullies, pedophiles, neglectful or abusive parents, and cowardly bystanders, Derry is an evil entity in its own right, one that like Pennywise, threatens to tear down these characters and eat them alive.

Pennywise himself proves to be a nightmarish villain. Skarsgard’s performance is reminiscent of Robert Englund’s iconic role of Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street, one that will go on to haunt generations of young moviegoers.

When Pennywise first appears in a sewer drain, the shadows obscure half his face, with only his piercing yellow eyes that each veer off into different directions standing out as he entices the ill-fated Georgie to reclaim his paper boat. Rainwater runs down his lips but he doesn’t react to it. Whether or not you’re afraid of clowns, Pennywise’s inhuman inflections are startlingly creepy enough to provoke an uneasy sense of uncomfortableness in any audience member.

Aside from that incredibly intense opening scene, “It” prefers to embrace the creepiness of the premise rather than heart-pounding horror. The most surprising element of this film is the humor. “It” is very funny. Not just in the interactions between the characters, but in the scary scenes as well one scene in particular between a crying Eddie cornered by a screaming Pennywise will have you torn between feeling amused and afraid.

Muschietti’s willingness to juggle both horror and comedy allows for his storytelling to be more inventive. The comedic horror stylings recall that of Sam Raimi and his “Evil Dead” films. (This movie is the most fun I’ve had watching a horror film in theaters since the aforementioned director’s “Drag Me to Hell.”)

Where “It” really shines is when the focus is on the Losers’ Club. No matter what scene they’re in, you are engaged with these characters because the film deliberately takes time to develope them and their backstories, motivations, and personalities. While not all of them get an equal amount of attention, each one is distinct enough to set them apart.

They’re such a relatable, lovable group of youngsters, and the actors inhabiting these roles are more than up to the task. Casting good child actors is hard. Yet, there is not a weak link among the cast, with the standouts being Sophia Lillis as Bev and “Stranger Things” breakout Finn Wolfhard as Richie.

Both are responsible for some of the film’s most touching (one of Bev’s last lines will tug on your heartstrings) and funniest moments (one of Richie’s jokes had my audience laughing so hard, nobody could hear what other characters were saying), respectively. Bright careers lie ahead for the entire cast.

It was while watching these characters play off each other, I found myself being taken back to moments from my childhood. Moments where my friends and I rode our bikes around the neighborhood, walked through the woods, and cursed like sailors.

Moments from a time where things seemed simpler. Before the harsh realities of growing up hit us. It’s rare that a horror film resonates on such a deep, personal level. Whether it’s Bill accepting the loss of his brother or Bev overcoming abuse or Eddie standing up to his mother, anybody can relate to what these characters endure.

Though the film ends hinting at a sequel (only the first half of King’s novel is adapted), I’m curious to see how it handles a radical direction the story takes that I won’t spoil here. Whatever the case, I’m excited to see where things go from here and the next chapter in the Losers’ journey.

 Their experiences are a reminder that sometimes the world will make you feel like it’s out to get you. People who you count on may turn their backs on you. Forces outside your control will try to control and oppress you through fear. The best we can do then is find others with kindred spirits, open our hearts, and brave the turmoil life burdens us together. That’s why The Losers’ Club are the real winners here.


"Spider-Man: Homecoming" Review: Smells Like Teen Spidey

Published on July 10, 2017


With there now being six Spider-Man movies and three different iterations of the character, it would seem difficult to craft an entirely unique take that audiences haven’t seen before. Sam Raimi’s "Spider-Man" trilogy is focused on Peter Parker’s struggle between the mask and the man, while Marc Webb’s two "Amazing Spider-Man" films prioritize mythology over character; fundamentally breaking Peter’s everyman persona in the process. Director/co-writer Jon Watts takes the iconic web-slinger in a new direction never seen on film before by bringing him back to his roots as a high school sophomore standing in the shadow of the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What results is not just a refreshing direction for the character, but a welcome change of pace for Marvel’s ever-expanding franchise. It may not have the world-ending stakes of “Doctor Strange” or the cosmic thrills of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2,” but Spider-Man has never felt more at home.

In “Captain America: Civil War,” Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is enlisted by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight on his side after the Avengers are fractured. After the battle, he’s dropped back home in Queens, New York, enthralled by the experience he just had. Two months pass by, and Peter is ambivalently going about his days at school as he awaits for that one phone call to whisk him away on another mission. Meanwhile, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), the head of a salvage company tasked with cleaning up after superhero battles is put out of business by Damage Control, which was implemented by Stark after the Avengers saved New York City from the Chitauri invasion. Seeing no other alternative, Toomes decides to retrofit the alien technology in his possession to become the Vulture and sell the weapons made from the tech to criminals. When Peter comes across these weapons after foiling a bank robbery, he takes it upon himself as Spider-Man to find the manufacturer, stop him, save his neighborhood, and hopefully become an Avenger.

What separates this version of Peter Parker from his cinematic predecessors is his love of being Spider-Man. That doesn’t mean past interpretations centered around Peter’s reluctance to put on the tights were misguided (that’s been a hallmark for the character for over 50 years), but it’s a much-needed reinvention for a franchise that seemed to hit a wall with 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Instead, Peter relishes in being a superhero. Like how any other teenager would act in his situation, Peter feels like he hit the superhero jackpot. Not only has he been gifted with these extraordinary powers, but he gets to inhabit the same space as other famous heroes like Captain America and Iron Man. He’s got the itch, and it’s not going away.

Now that he’s gotten a brief taste of what it’s like being an Avengers in “Civil War,” all Peter can think about is proving his worth to Tony Stark so he become a fulltime member of the team. However, it would be a Spider-Man story if these things didn’t have a cost, and that cost is something valuable and irreplaceable: His youth. While Peter is still the scientific genius he’s known as, he never appears to be giving school his all compared to being Spider-Man. He purposefully drops of out several extracurricular activities to devote more time to his heroics, hoping it will get Stark’s attention. If past movies were about Peter Parker struggling to be Spider-Man, then “Homecoming” is about Spider-Man struggling to be Peter Parker.

Unfortunately, his overzealousness often leads to getting him in trouble and jeopardizing the lives of innocent people. Unlike “The Amazing Spider-Man” movies where Peter’s recklessness comes across as selfish and unlikable due to bad writing, this film treads carefully in that regard by making Peter’s fearless-abandon attitude come from a genuine desire to belong, and to earn acceptance from his idols. Spider-Man being integrated into the MCU means more than just him interacting with other heroes. It’s deeper than that because this 15-year old has grown up in an age of superpowers. He probably doesn’t remember a time before Tony Stark revealed himself as Iron Man almost a decade ago.

The journey Peter must undergo here is one of independence. His arc is a deeply relatable one about living in the moment and not trying to reach for something he’s clearly not ready for. He needs to learn what kind of hero he wants to be while also reconciling that with his personal life. He may be powerful, but he can’t solve his problems by punching them. Adolescence isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Peter will always have the opportunity to become an Avenger. His youth, however, is fleeting. This is why the character has endured more than any other in the Marvel pantheon: His ability to relate to audience. He speaks to our existential crises and insecurities in a way no other fictional comic book hero could. At some point in our lives, we were all Spider-Man.

All of these thematic underpinnings wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t have the performances to be anchored to. Yet, the cast of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” pulls off their individual roles with flying colors, most certainly of all Tom Holland. There have now been three different actors in the red and blue suit, yet Holland may be the best of them all. Aside from the obvious being he’s the first to look like a high school student (he’s 21), he perfectly inhabits both sides of the character. The socially-awkward nerd in Peter Parker and the confident, exuberant, jokey do-gooder Spider-Man. In a critical scene in the third act that pays homage to an iconic scene from the comics where Peter is at his most vulnerable, Holland sells the gut-wrenching fragility and youthfulness needed to make audiences sympathize with him.

Despite his age, Holland is capable of going toe-to-toe with veteran actors like Michael Keaton, who is quite intimidating as the Vulture. Spider-Man arguably has the best rogue’s gallery in all of Marvel Comics, but the MCU has had a much-publicized villain problem. Whether they just have no motivations or personalities, or their motives are just too confusing and underdeveloped to empathize with, it’s been a deep-rooted issue in this franchise that has stopped some of these movies from achieving greatness. Luckily, that’s all sidestepped here as the Vulture proves to be one of the best villains in the MCU and the best villain in a Spidey film since Doctor Octopus in “Spider-Man 2.” Adrian Toomes has clear motivations and goals: He wants to provide for his family, but he gets shafted by the 1% like Tony Stark. He has no aspirations of world domination or vengeance, he simply just wants his piece of the pie because he feels he deserves it.

His grievances are understandable, but what separates Spider-Man from his enemies is how they utilize the great power hoisted upon them. For Peter, he uses his powers for good because he believes it’s the right thing to do. For Adrian, he uses the Vulture suit he made for personal gain. It doesn’t matter to him how many laws he breaks or who gets hurt along the way, all that matters to him is he gets his fair share. In a way, he becomes the very person he despises, but he refuses to see it that way because he’s blinded by his anger and contempt for the rich and powerful. That alone would make a compelling villain, but there is a massive reveal in the third act that completely re-contextualizes his entire character and makes the stakes more personal.

In a way, Tony Stark feels like a secondary villain. It’s not that he’s inherently evil because he genuinely wants to do good. It’s just that he constantly overcorrects himself and ends up making things worse for himself and everyone else around him. He is a self-destructive character who never learns from his mistakes. In “Civil War” he signs the Sokovia Accords to hold the Avengers accountable, but he really he signed because he knows he needs to be held accountable. Peter Parker aspires to be like Tony, but he is what Peter could become if he’s not careful: Great power, but no responsibility.

One of the aspects that separates “Homecoming” not just from other entries in the MCU, but other blockbusters is the ethnical diversity of its cast. Having been to New York myself, I appreciate Watts’ willingness to embrace such a multicultural community, especially in regards to the high school setting. Spider-Man is a New Yorker. That has always been a part of his identity, so seeing a Spider-Man film reflect the Queens he inhabits was not only encouraging, but also a sign of great respect for the character and his roots. In fact, the scenes set in high school is where the film really shines. We never got to see Peter navigate social constructs of high school that much in previous films. But here, it’s the focal point of the narrative. So much so that it eclipses the actual superhero escapades. The scenes in high school are funny, authentic, full of great side characters, and the setting itself is clearly defined.

The cast of young actors are all great, but the standout amongst them is Zendaya as Michelle. Inspired by Allison Reynolds from “The Breakfast Club,” Michelle is an introvert who is judgmental of just about everybody, especially Peter. Though she’s not in the film often, whenever she does, she is an absolute delight, sarcastically grilling her peers and teachers. The film leaves the door open for her to have a bigger role in the future in a way I won’t spoil here, and I hope she returns because there are so many exciting directions for her character to go.

Though the film is a fun experience from start to finish, it isn’t quite as emotionally compelling as it could have been. There are moments where the film gets serious and the characters are allowed to vent emotionally, they are very far and few between. Even the action sequences aren’t particularly noteworthy. The scene where Spider-Man has to stop the Staten Island Ferry from splitting in half that feels similar to the train sequence from “Spider-Man 2,” but it’s nowhere near as intense, visceral, and superbly-paced as that scene.

Going back to the film’s problem with emotion, “Homecoming” skips over the origin story, and with it, Uncle Ben’s death. This is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s a huge relief to not have to go through Spider-Man’s origin for the third time within 15 years. The filmmakers assume that audiences are familiar enough with the character to know how he got his powers and what drives him to be a hero (though to be fair, the radioactive spider bite that gifted Peter his powers is directly mentioned). On the other hand, not even acknowledging Uncle Ben removes the emotional baggage that weighs down on Peter’s shoulders. It feels like the film is so afraid it will immediately become stale if Uncle Ben is brought up in the slightest, so it ignores him outside of subtle throwaway line where Peter admits he can’t reveal his secret identity to Aunt May because of everything she’s been through. Considering that some of the younger viewers the film’s marketing targets have never seen a Spider-Man movie until now, that’s an issue.

In a summer where old franchises have collapsed under the weight of their own fatigue, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” stands apart from the pack by doing what all good reboots of aging franchises should do. Take the franchise into uncharted territory, craft an exciting cast of fun characters, and don’t get bogged down in exhaustive world-building. For the first time in years, I’m anticipating where the webslinger goes from here. With “Avengers: Infinity War” next year, and “Avengers 4” and the “Homecoming” sequel in 2019, Spider-Man’s future is looking brighter than it ever has before.


"Baby Driver" Review: A Song of Sight and Sound

Published on June 26, 2017


Action films and musicals are one in the same genre. In musicals, when the emotions get too high, characters break out into song. The same occurs in action movies except characters break out into fights instead. No other director working today understands that better than Edgar Wright. While his latest isn’t exactly a musical, music is heavily ingrained in this film’s DNA. With every action beat synchronized to the beat of the music, Wright crafts “Baby Driver” into a slick, cool, groovy action picture that is only possible due to Wright’s extensive cinematic and musical vocabulary. “Baby Driver” isn’t just good, it’s the perfect movie this summer has been so desperately waiting for.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus brought onto him by a car accident that claimed the lives of his parents as a boy. In order to drown out the ringing in his ears, he listens to music almost all the time, even when on the job. His personal soundtrack and skills behind the wheel make Baby the best getaway driver around. Unfortunately, he’s indebted to a crime boss named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who leads the rag-tag group of criminals Baby chauffeurs to bank heists. One day, Baby meets a waitress at a diner named Debora (Lily James), with whom he sees a chance to leave his criminal life behind. But Baby quickly learns there are no clean getaways when he is coerced into pulling off a heist that threatens everything and everyone he loves. 

What makes Wright such a unique director is his ability to utilize every filmmaking tool at his disposal, specifically music. Anyone familiar with Wright’s work (especially “Shaun of the Dead”) won’t be surprised how effervescently music in incorporated into the action. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this would come across as a gimmick. But in Wright’s hands, the music means everything. It isn’t just for the thrill of witnessing a car chase or a shoot-out timed to the diagetic music, it’s also for enriching the characters and the setting, and nowhere is that more apparent than the main character, Baby.

Though this isn’t a superhero movie, Baby’s origin shares many of the tropes often found in superhero origin stories. He suffered a traumatic loss as a child, which also left him cursed with tinnitus, but with his music, he can not only suppress the ringing in his ears, but also be the best getaway driver in the business. When Baby is behind the wheel with his soundtrack by his side, he’s calm, confident, but above all else, unstoppable. Even as the criminals in the back seat lose their cool or doubt his skills, Baby doesn’t. He knows he’s got this. But even his driving prowess can’t get him away of the criminal underworld. His blind spot is his empathy towards others. While everything he does is to protect those he cares about, that just makes him vulnerable.

Wright’s comedic sensibilities and cartoonish grisly violence are all present, this is an action thriller first and foremost. Some of the most intense scenes in this film are when Baby’s weakness is exposed, particularly one in a diner, which I won’t spoil here, but will say I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, genuinely afraid for Baby and everyone close to him. “Baby Driver” is full of fantastic performances, but the two standouts are Ansel Elgort and Jamie Foxx as Baby and Bats, respectively.

Though Baby himself doesn’t have much dialogue, Elgort’s boyish charm and appearance make him easy for us to admire and relate to him. His slender build and youthful looks contrast him from the older, grizzled, muscular criminals he’s in service to, and even when he’s forced to drive and innocent people are hurt along the way, we’re with him. Baby doesn’t want to hurt anyone, much less see anyone get hurt, but with every job, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid getting blood on his hands.

As for Foxx, this is his best performance since “Django Unchained.” As one of the cohorts of Doc’s group of thieves, Bats is a character who gushes with trigger-happy impulse, supported by a magnetic performance from Foxx. Anytime he is onscreen, you are unnerved by his presence. You never know what he’s going to do next, which puts him at odds with Baby and the rest of the crew. My one complaint about his character is that he’s not in the film enough. He serves his purpose, but I couldn’t get enough of him.

The only criticism I have is that Baby’s love interest Debora, is not as fully-fledged as the other characters. She’s likable, Wright does a good job at making the audience care for her, and James and Elgort have endearing chemistry, but she feels less like a character and more like a goal for Baby, and considering she is one of the only two prominent female characters in the film, that’s problematic. Wright has certainly done better with romance in his earlier work (see “Shaun of the Dead” and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”), but since the relationship between Baby and Debora is the emotional crux of the narrative, it’s more glaring when one half of said relationship isn’t as strong as the other half.

Aside from that, the film is always firing on all cylinders. The soundtrack itself is extensive, but diverse in the different genres and eras from which they came from. Some are recognizable while others are more obscure. I imagine that the film will introduce new generations to songs and bands they weren’t familiar with prior. It certainly did for me. The music selection speaks so much about the characters and the setting. Unlike other films nowadays that shoot in Atlanta but use the city to dub for a completely different metropolis, “Baby Driver” was shot and is set entirely in Atlanta, and it takes full advantage of the city. Atlanta feels like a character in its own right, full of life and personal charm outside the main story. There is a scene early on where Baby strolls down the sidewalk while listening to “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob and Earl. The way the city is incorporated into the scene illustrates why Edgar Wright is such a great director. He understands cinema is ultimately a playground, and he plays with everything in the scene until his heart’s content.

An action movie about a getaway driver wouldn’t be so entertaining if the chase sequences weren’t on par with the rest of the film. Thankfully, all the car chases, along with the shootouts and foot chases, work wonderfully. This is the first movie is a long time where the action scenes involving cars feel like they were crafted by gentle, articulate human hands. Just about everything is shot on location with very little digital effects implemented. The usage of practical stunts amplify the feats pulled off behind the wheel. This may not be the most expensive film you’ll see this summer, but its technical wizardry not only rivals those films, but also surpasses them.

“Baby Driver” is a rousing symphonic masterwork of action vernacular that could have only come from a filmmaker with a deep, passionate knowledge of both music and film. This is a wholly original picture that is unlike anything else playing at the theater. It’s a meticulously-crafted, adrenaline-fueled rush handmade by one of the best talents of our time working behind the camera at the top of his game with a studio budget to exploit. Action movies like this don’t get made often, so when they come around, direct your attention to the screen, sit down, and enjoy the ride.


"Transformers: The Last Knight" Review: This Franchise Is Past Its Prime

Published June 22, 2017


Director Michael Bay kicked off the “Transformers” film franchise 10 years ago back in July of 2007. Over the course of those 10 years, he has been the sole director of this series; cranking out all five entries. Yet over the course of those five movies and the hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal, Bay has utterly failed at crafting anything memorable or interesting. I have no idea what entices him to keep coming back to this franchise, especially since it’s been obvious for a long time he has nothing new or exciting to say about this world. Maybe it’s because these movies allow him to work on a large canvas that seems mostly unavailable in today’s franchise-driven climate. But event that sounds flimsy because he’s proven capable of creating spectacle on much small budgets.

Which brings us to “The Last Knight,” a film I find difficult to write about because what hasn’t been said about these movies? Each one is so interchangeable, you could swap the order of the movies and wouldn’t make a difference. If you’ve seen one “Transformers” film, you’ve seen them all. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I write “The Last Knight” is yet another grueling, punishing, exhausting experience in which all consideration for plot and character gets thrown out the window. It doesn’t matter who wins in this war of Autobots vs. Decepticons because we, the paying audience, lose either way.

Just like the last three films, “The Last Knight” opens with a historical prologue with the narrator expositing yet another way the Transformers are tied to Earth’s history, this time it’s the Dark Ages, where King Arthur reigns. Merlin (Stanley Tucci) comes into contact with the Transformers and persuades them to help Arthur and his army. In the present day, Transformers are public enemy number one, and a task force called TRF, is specifically designed to hunt them down. Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is a fugitive from the government for aiding the Autobots, who hide out with him at a scrap yard. He eventually discovers a Cybertronian talisman, which garners the attention of Sir Edmund Bunton (Anthony Hopkins, erasing all the goodwill he built up from “Westworld”), who also enlists Oxford professor Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), who unknowingly holds the key to save the Earth from destruction. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) returns to Cybertron in search of his creators and encounters Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who brainwashes Prime and instructs him to destroy Earth in order to preserve Cybertron, and then he proceeds to drop out of the movie until the third act.

While story has never exactly been Bay’s strong suit, that’s still no excuse to jam-pack a film based on a toy line from the 80’s with so much needlessly convoluted and incoherent storytelling. It may not be as unforgivingly long as “Age of Extinction (which clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, longer than any of these movies has any right to be), but the film goes out of its way to make sure the audience feels every one of those minutes. It just piles on the characters and plot-threads reckless abandon. Our enjoyment is optional.

Michael Bay is a slave to his own desire for excess. Nowhere is that more evident than the film’s aspect ratio. There are scenes where the aspect ratio changes from shot to shot. Even during scenes of just two characters exchanging dialogue. Not only is this incredibly distracting, it’s headache-inducing. Ultimately, however, that summarizes Bay as a filmmaker in a nutshell. He doesn’t seem to have any consideration for entertaining his audience. He only seems to want to drag them down to his level of over-indulgent nonsense and pummel them into submission with the experience. Either you are fully on board come hell or high water or you’re not. There is no in between.

What is a real shame is that these movies don’t have to be bad. A franchise like “Transformers” wouldn’t have lasted for 30 years across several generations if there wasn’t something appealing about it. Unfortunately, that is not important to Bay and writers Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan. This creative team does not care about building any meaningful connections between characters. Instead, they take the easy way out where one character refers to their allies as “family,” even though they’ve barely spent enough time with each other to form an emotional bond. The film even haphazardly tries to set up a romance between Cade and Vivian, even though they spend most of the movie not liking each. But that doesn’t matter because they’re the two lead actors of consenting age so they have to kiss at the end. In fact, most of the interactions are mean-spirited in nature. The characters don’t spend as much time bonding as they do verbally sparring and tearing each other down. Again, we’re supposed to believe these characters are ”family,” yet the film refuses to put in the extra work to sell that idea.

Even when the film reaches the much-teased battled between Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, there is no reason to care even though these two characters have been a part of this series since the beginning. Speaking of Optimus, it should be noted how the character has been on a downward trajectory over the last few movies. In the first film, Optimus was the fearless, noble, heroic, wise, self-sacrificing leader legions of fans grew up on. But recently, he’s become selfish, violent, careless, bloodthirsty, and downright psychotic, and that’s before the brainwashing. At times it feels like Bay’s Optimus Prime and Zack Snyder’s Superman are competing with each other to see who can the biggest jerk. Whenever he’s not making threats of murder, he’s mercilessly cutting down bad guys. Optimus may be the leader of the Autobots, but he’s no hero, especially in a film that already never feels heroic.

“Transformers: The Last Knight” concludes exactly how you think it would depending if you’ve seen the previous installments. The story breaks the basic three-act structure, the climax becomes numbingly long to the point where you’re just sitting there waiting for it all to end, topped off with a lazily-written voiceover narration from Optimus Prime intended to bringing the film’s undercooked themes full circle, and followed by an abrupt ending that feels like it’s as eager to get this over with as we are. Though there is a post-credits scene that teases where future movies could go, I sincerely hope Bay truly means it this time when he say this is last “Transformers” film (he’s been saying the same thing for the last two movies, so we’ll what happens) because this aging franchise is in desperate need of new blood. “Transformers” has been languishing under Bay’s oppressive thumb for a decade now. Hopefully, under Paramount Pictures’ intent to expand the franchise ala the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we finally get some worthwhile films with endearing characters, economical storytelling, and thrilling action set pieces.

It’s just a shame that it took 10 years and five movies to get to this point. What a waste.


“The Book of Henry” Review: Some Things Are Best Left Undone

Published on June 19, 2017


 

 

[WARNING: In order to properly analyze this film, this review will be going into massive spoilers. If you have not yet seen “The Book of Henry,” turn away now.]

There is a scene well into The Book of Henry’s third act where a character races home to carry out an assassination on the next door neighbor while a school talent show is intercut throughout. This is where I came to the conclusion that this scene above all others perfectly exemplifies almost everything wrong with this film. Tonally inconsistent, obnoxiously written, and deeply problematic, “The Book of Henry” is a film that is completely unaware of how troubling and bizarre its narrative is. It’s a movie where the entire cast is at the mercy of its script and direction, and both seem to go out of their way to make sure this is embarrassing for everyone involved. It may not qualify as a “so bad it’s good” type film, but “The Book of Henry” is so appalling on every level, you just have to see it to believe it.

Set in Hudson Valley, the film follows Henry (Jaeden Lieberher), an 11 year old boy genius who lives with his younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) and their single mother Susan (Naomi Watts). Their next door neighbors are a girl Henry has a crush on named Christina (Maddie Ziegler) and her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris), who is also the police commissioner. One night, Henry witnesses Christina being sexually abused by Glenn. When authority figures fail to act, Henry takes it upon himself to seek deadly vengeance against Glenn and save Christina.

For a film that so desperately wants to be a quirky, feel-good family drama, “The Book of Henry” is surprisingly mean-spirited, and most of that is due to the main character himself. Despite being intellectually gifted, Henry is an insufferable jerk. He’s rude, disrespectful, condescending, controlling, and manipulative. He treats almost everybody around him like they’re beneath him, he never misses an opportunity to talk down to adults (especially women, but we’ll get to that later), and controls every aspect of his mother’s life. He may be smart, but he rarely ever shows love for other people. It feels like screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz (whose script has been in development hell since 1998, where it should have stayed forever) has never actually seen or spoken to child.

The character who faces the brunt of Henry’s overbearing ego is his mother, Susan. But it also doesn’t help that Susan herself is particularly terrible parent. Though she works as a waitress at a diner, the family is able to live in an expensive house due to Henry’s handling of their finances and investments in the stock market. Yes, you read that right. This grown woman with two children can’t do her own taxes and must rely on her 11 year old son to make sure they live comfortably. In fact, she relies on Henry to do everything, even at certain points saying she can’t perform tasks without Henry’s permission. Her objectives are basically work at a diner, pick up her kids from school, play video games, and get drunk with her best friend/co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman).

This isn’t exactly the first time director Colin Trevorrow has treated the female characters in his movies questionably, to say the least. His previous film, “Jurassic World,” was rightfully criticized for its dated gender politics and casual misogyny. That carries over into “The Book of Henry.” Every female character is either an incompetent dolt like Susan, a sleazy alcoholic like Sheila, or a damsel in distress like Christina. All of whom are at the mercy of the men in their lives.

Speaking of Christina, though the main crux of the story is about saving her from abuse, she herself doesn’t have a character. While Maddie Ziegler portrays the abuse victim archetype well, we know nothing about her goals, desires, personality, or feelings. She is nothing more than an object, and considering she is a victim of child molestation, that just makes her depiction even more appalling. It’s evident that Trevorrow isn’t mature enough as a storyteller or as a person to carefully handle such a sensitive topic. His skeevy sensibilities are all the more horrifying when you remember his next film is “Star War: Episode IX,” the closing chapter of the current female-fronted Star Wars sequel trilogy. All of you fans of Rey have every right to shudder in terror.

Just when you think the film can’t get any more problematic, at the end of the first act, Henry has an epileptic seizure which is quickly discovered to be caused by an inoperable brain tumor. From there, the film goes from being a lighthearted family picture to spending the entire second act as a dour, ultra-serious terminal-illness drama. Henry ultimately succumbs to his disease, but not before leaving behind a book and tape recorded messages he instructs Peter to give to Susan after his death, which describe Christina’s predicament and how to save her by assassinating Glenn. From there, the film turns into “The Manchurian Candidate,” but if Raymond Shaw was an irresponsible moron who couldn’t do taxes but was entrusted with carrying out a hit on the child-molesting neighbor.

Going back to the beginning of the movie, there is a scene in Henry’s class where students have to give speech about what they hope their legacy will be. (Most of you would find the idea of fifth graders of all people talking about legacy incredibly stupid, as you should. However, since it’s already established that Trevorrow and Hurwitz are up in their own twisted la la land, the film plays this completely straight. But I digress). It really speaks volumes about Henry’s character that what he leaves behind for his mother isn’t something to help her cope with the loss of one of her children, but a carefully-detailed plan to commit murder. It’s here where the “Henry is a jerk” revelation comes full circle.  I don’t believe Henry was a person who genuinely loved anybody. I don’t believe he would put his ego aside for the benefit of others. What I do believe is he is an incredibly selfish person who has decided his legacy will be to have his mother get blood on her hands on his behalf by helping a girl in order satisfy his hero-complex.

Despite how idiotic and bafflingly insane this plot is, Susan goes along with it after witnessing Christina being abused firsthand. For all of the bluster about what a genius Henry is, he was obviously too stupid to conceive a plan that doesn’t involve murder. I get that Glenn is the police commissioner and holds a substantial amount of power, but more powerful men than him have been brought down under similar circumstances. Peter says that Henry thought of every possible solution in the journal, but none were as fruitful as murder, yet we never find out what those other plots were. Why don’t they just gather evidence of Christina’s abuse and leak it to the press? Why don’t they ever try to talk to Christina herself about the situation? The film doesn’t care and asks the audience to just go with it.

So the final act is Susan learning how to carefully execute an assassination from recordings Henry left behind. However, these recordings are so precise, what with Henry seemingly able to predict every single action Susan will take, almost as like he is speaking to her from beyond the grave. It’s this part right here that made me laugh under my breath as to not disturb the other four people in the theater. Just when Susan is about to take the shot, she finally, FINALLY, gets some agency for the first time and decides not to go through with it. In the end, the school principal who knew what Glenn was doing calls the police, Glenn commits suicide rather than live with his damaged reputation in prison, and Christina is adopted by Susan.

In the end, “The Book of Henry” wants to be a bunch of different movies, but because the tone is too scattershot and Trevorrow and Hurwitz are ignorant of the horrific implications of their own story, it’s instead an unmitigated disaster. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a film so completely misguided in just about every department. This is a movie whose awfulness is truly a sight to behold. Years from now, “The Book of Henry” will be played at midnight circuits like “The Room” or “Birdemic” before it. It will be celebrated by legions of fans who come together to bask in its sincere lunacy. It will be studied and critiqued at film schools across the world as students learn how not to make movies. But it will never be remembered as a good film. That is Colin Trevorrow’s legacy.


“Wonder Woman” Review: DC’s First Hero Is Born

Published on May 30, 2017


The DC Extended Universe is a frustrating mega-franchise in that it’s a cinematic universe about superheroes, yet so far none of the films have felt heroic. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” seems to go out of its way to paint its titular heroes in the worst light possible. They’re brooding, violent, selfish, and completely detached from humanity. “Wonder Woman” is the antithesis to all the “Man of Steels” and Batman v. Supermans” of the world. Director Patty Jenkins didn’t just make a film in the DC universe that is refreshingly pleasant to watch, but she crafted a film that holds its title character in high regard, but without turning her into an all-powerful god who is indifferent to humanity’s plight. Instead, the movie holds true to Diana’s belief system and in turn provides us with an earnest, feel-good superhero picture that like its hero, is untainted by angst or cynicism.

Diana (Gal Gadot) grows up on the sheltered island paradise of Themyscira as the princess of the Amazons, a race of immortal, female warriors created by the Gods of Olympus. One day, an American fighter pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash-lands on their shores and tells of the Great War raging in the outside world. Believing this conflict to be orchestrated by Ares, the God of War, Diana leaves her home with Steve and sets out into man’s world for the first time to find and defeat Ares, end the war, and save the world. Here, Diana learns of the complexities of man, and of her ultimate destiny.

Seeing as how she grew up on an island of only women, sexism and misogyny are foreign concepts to Diana. When she first arrives in London, she’s caught off-guard by the fact that women are not treated as equally as men. Diana is now in a society that doesn’t respect women, so watching her defy men in power, who don’t take her seriously and would otherwise let innocents and their own soldiers suffer and die, makes her accomplishments more rewarding. I imagine this film will prove to be quite cathartic for female audience members who have the unfortunate experience to relate to Diana’s plight.

One of many reasons why “Wonder Woman” feels like a miracle is because there are so many ways this story could have gone easily wrong. By having an outsider as the protagonist, it runs the risk of her becoming a fascistic figure who imposes her will unto an unsuspecting, weaker population. By having a woman as the fish out of water, it risks falling into an insidious form of sexism where the male counterpart is constantly educating the ignorant female on the inner workings of human society. Thankfully and surprisingly, the film subverts these expectations. Diana is not here to lecture humanity or force them to bend to her will, she is here to give those who cannot fight for themselves a stronger chance to survive. Steve can explain how his world works to Diana, but this allows for her to openly criticize those social norms right back.

This doesn’t mean the two are constantly in a battle of the sexes. Diana and Steve’s relationship is not about trying to one up the other. Rather, it’s playful, respectful, and supportive. Diana may have to save Steve occasionally throughout the film, but he never feels like his masculinity is threatened. He is willing to let her take charge should the circumstances call for it. They come from different societies, but they come to believe in each other’s goals and ultimately support one another. On top of that, Gadot and Pine’s chemistry is superb, which is good because their relationship is the heart of the story. Romances almost always tend to be an afterthought in superhero movies these days (especially in the oddly sex-free Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I digress), but here, it works tremendously well and is the source of some of the film’s charm and humor.

Speaking of which, I was not expecting to laugh as much as I did during this film. Humor has been absent in these DC movies thus far. “Batman v. Superman” is deadly serious to the point of being unpleasant and joyless, and the jokes in “Suicide Squad” fall flat. It’s refreshing to see one of these movies unafraid of having a good laugh. The setting of this film is bleak, but the characters are unfettered by it and never succumb to the bleakness themselves. I genuinely rooted and cared for Diana, Steve, and the other supporting characters.

Unlike those other DC films, “Wonder Woman” has a likable hero at its center. Gal Gadot is such a delight as Diana. She embodies every quality the character is known and beloved for. She’s fierce, but kind. Emotional, but smart. Powerful, but loving. She’s not stuck in a hopelessly nihilistic film that seeks to drag her performance down to its level of gloominess. Jenkins wisely uses Gadot’s exuberance and charm to the film’s advantage. When she first arrives in London (which during World War I, was in the midst of an industrial revolution), she is not in awe of our tall, man-made structures or our weapons of war. What catches her attention and has her gushing is seeing a baby for the first time in her life. Her deep, humanistic instincts are what make her stand out from other superheroes. Diana is a hero of the people, a champion of good, and a crusader for justice. Basically, she is not this universe’s Superman.

Unfortunately, while Wonder Woman is a great hero in her own right, she doesn’t have a villains that can match her in terms of character. The film has three villains: Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), the historical figure General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and Ares (whose identity I won’t spoil here). There isn’t much to say about them because we see throwaway villains like them all the time in the MCU and I’ve bemoaned such villains many times before. They don’t leave much of an impression and competently serve their purpose as punching bags for the hero. While some will make the argument this film is Wonder Woman’s origin story so it’s acceptable for the villains to be secondary, that hardly holds weight. They may be superhero movies, but they should be held to the same standards we hold to other films. If not now, then when? Also, there have been other superhero movies that were able to efficiently introduce the hero while also setting up a compelling villain. It can be done, and it should be done.

Additionally, there is a massive revelation that occurs in the third act that doesn’t seem to have much impact. This reveal doesn’t affect the trajectory of the story nor does it rock Diana to her core and leave her questioning everything she has come to know. It’s completely consequence-free. It feels like a tacked on twist that was written in late and not properly fleshed out. Without giving too much away, it does add another layer to Diana’s origin. While it doesn’t break everything about the character on a fundamental level, it will leave some Wonder Woman purists out there irritated, which is understandable.

At this point, it’s too early to say whether “Wonder Woman” will ultimately save the DC Extended Universe. There has been much damage done by the previous three films that will take time and effort to rectify. As it stands, however, the film provides hope that these movies can aspire to and achieve greatness. Nobody wants to pay to see a superhero movie that

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