Arrow Season 5 Review

Spoilers for the entire series follow:

From 2012 to 2014 The CW’s Arrow was on top of the world.   The first live-action superhero series since the end of Smallville, Arrow (based on DC Comics character Green Arrow) scratched an itch for weekly tales of comic book crime fighting that viewers didn’t seem to know they had.  The show was rightly praised in its first two seasons for its quick pace, genuinely surprising twists, high-quality action sequences, and complex, engaging characters, none more so than lead Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell).  This success kick-started a new wave of small screen superhero series, many of which (such as The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow) are parts of the endlessly entertaining interconnected universe Arrow started and anyone who enjoys any of these series, as well as those series own creators, owe some gratitude to early Arrow.  That being said, after its awesome second season Arrow‘s own magic seemed to have run out, and its quality quickly declined. The third year did some good work with a few of the more interesting supporting characters but was rather directionless about what it was trying to say about Oliver and was further damned by a truly unsatisfying conclusion.  The fourth season was an absolute disaster.  The villainous plot was absolutely absurd and far too fantastical for a series that had always kept one foot planted in reality, almost all action sequences lacked impact, and the creators’ obsession with soap opera-like relationship drama and the series’ weakest characters prevented any interesting narratives from taking off.  Sadly, it seemed as if the time had come to abandon the first of the many superhero series that now fill our TV screens.  However the diminished population that, out of either loyalty or habit, continued watching Arrow as its fifth season began discovered a gem.  The fifth season brings back much of what people loved about those wonderful first two years, from the strength of the action to the emotional complexity.

One of the best things about Season 5 of Arrow is that it remembers that as strong as some of the shows supporting players are, its most interesting character will always be Mister Queen himself.  The renewed focus on Oliver’s psyche and morality as well as Amell’s revitalized performance give a weight and energy to each episode that the series had been missing for some time.  The use of the serialized flashbacks that chronicle Oliver’s five years surviving various hellholes throughout the world before returning home always meant that the fifth season was going to be the end of a chapter for the show.  This lends a sense of immediacy and importance to this season’s flashbacks that makes them the strongest since the second season and this gravity leaks over into the present day storyline.  But as helpful as their place in the chronology is, the fact is that this year’s main storylines both in the past and the present are just plain good regardless of their slightly increased importance to the show’s history.  Oliver’s conflict with serial killer Prometheus in the present day and his time serving as a member of the Russian mob, the Bratva, before returning to the island on which he was originally marooned five years before tie together wonderfully due to the core thematic ideas of exploring Oliver’s relationship with violence and the legitimacy and impact of his vigilante mission to make Star City a better, safer place.

Two noticeable improvements Season 5 makes over the last two years are the action sequences and Oliver’s recently bequeathed position as mayor of Star City.  The fight sequences this year are leaps and bounds above those of Seasons 3 and 4 if not quite as mind blowing as those from Seasons 1 or 2.  The directors and choreographers of season 5 seem more interested in having Oliver face off with singular opponents who can keep up with him a bit more as opposed to having him take on small armies of goons singlehandedly as he often used to.  Holding the camera back allows for some nice long, uninterrupted shots of combat but this costs some of the in-your-face intensity the old closer angles gave.  That being said, even if it can’t quite top itself, Arrow is back to offering some of TV’s best action, with Oliver’s one-on-one bouts against Prometheus and the first escalator-set martial arts fight I’ve ever seen being standouts.  That mayoral position is a wonderful addition to the show.  After taking his family company away from him late in the second season, Arrow has struggled to maintain a balance between Oliver’s vigilante activities and his outside life.  Season 4 had a potential dramatic goldmine in Oliver’s mayoral campaign but really only used it as background noise and it’s a mystery to this day what his employment and living statuses were throughout Season 3.  Putting Ollie in the mayor’s office gives him, his sister Thea (Willa Holland), and quasi-father figure Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) things to do other than hunting down criminals and the three actors have a delightful chemistry (Oliver and Thea have always had one of the show’s strongest on-screen relationships but adding Quentin into the family circle is a masterstroke).  While the political escapades of the show don’t seem particularly realistic (this is a show which once had Thea running a nightclub/bar despite not being old enough to legally drink, after all) they don’t really have to be: they give Amell, Holland, and Blackthorne opportunities to be authoritative and talk down to slimy city politicians and that’s just fun to watch.  Giving Oliver a day job which also focuses on helping the good  people of his city gives him a unity of purpose that past jobs haven’t and Amell’s performance clearly indicates to the viewer that in spite of himself Oliver enjoys the job, which gives added tension when his administration is threatened in the middle of the season.

Aside from Thea and Quentin, and two others who I’ll get to later, the supporting characters are average at best this year and missteps in their use are evidence that Arrow still has more than a few problems.  Oliver takes on a crop of trainee vigilantes early on to fill out the ranks of his dwindling crime-fighting team but the only one given significant development over the year is Rick Gonzalez’s Rene Ramirez/Wild Dog.  Joe Dinicol’s Rory Regan/Ragman is entertaining but isn’t given enough focus and leaves unceremoniously in the middle of the season, making his appearances feel somewhat pointless.  David Ramsey is still strong as Oliver’s right-hand man, John Diggle, but the downward spiral of writing for the character that started last season continues.  The writers need to realize that Diggle’s character works best when acting as Team Arrow’s voice of reason or in romantic scenes with Audrey Marie Anderson’s Lyla and bromantic scenes with Oliver.  Instead they continue to have the character, who was introduced as the most righteous and understanding on the show, continue to act immorally or hypocritically object to questionable decisions made by others, when he’s not acting as a cheerleader for the narratively toxic romance that nearly destroyed the show.  Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity is no stronger a character than she was the last two years (in which she received an overabundance of screen time) and shows the same hypocrisy as Diggle.  Now, Oliver is often a hypocrite as well, but the important distinction between his characterization and that of his two confidants is that for Oliver, hypocrisy is an established character flaw, one that was consciously included and is openly recognized as a problem he works on.  John and Felicity’s hypocrisies, on the other hand, are simply exemplary of inconsistent writing and the fact that the rest of the characters continue deferring to them as if they’re always right despite their spotty track records is infuriating.  Finally, comic-relief tech expert Curtis (Echo Kellum) has lost all his appeal and is simply unfunny this year.

That last paragraph may seem contradictory to my praise for this season but that’s because the weakness of those supporting characters is more than made up for by the core narrative of the season, which is an intimate, powerful, character study of Oliver.  There are only three pairs of characters and actors that really needed to work for this season to succeed: Oliver and Amell, Josh Segarra as Oliver’s tormentor, Adrian Chase, and David Nykl as Oliver’s friend and Bratva ally, Anatoli Kynazev.  Thankfully, these pairs do work, with the actors giving spectacular interpretations of strong material.  Nykl was a consistent and entertaining presence in the second season’s flashbacks but played second fiddle to the tragic downfall of Manu Bennet’s terrific Slade Wilson.  With Slade’s part in Oliver’s “five years in hell” long since finished and Past Oliver and Anatoly reunited due to the former’s dealings with the Bratva, the flashback sequences put the spotlight firmly on Anatoly, and Nykl really shines.  Oliver and Anatoly had already developed a strong bond but their time together in Russia really solidifies how important they are to each other as well as how suprisingly similar they are.  Anatoly isn’t an average gangster.  Like Oliver he seeks to protect those who can’t protect themselves.   Oliver puts on a hood and puts arrows into the criminals and corrupt who exploit the weaknesses in the Star City and larger American systems.  In Anatoly’s homeland the system itself is what’s exploitative so he puts his faith in the Bratva, because of its (perceived) loyalty and dedication to helping the little guy.  In the flashbacks Anatoly is witness to Oliver at his worst and is horrified by his dear friend’s increasingly violent, often murderous tendenices, while present day scenes have Oliver, picking himself up from possibly his darkest hour yet realizing that five years as a Bratva leader have caused Anatoly to lose most of the idealism that separated him from the rest of their criminal fraternity as Arrow finally deals with the intriguing contradiction of depicting a super hero with ties to organized crime.  The shifting nature of Oliver and Anatoly’s relationship is enthralling to watch and Nykl shifts between past and present sequences exceptionally, offering humor and warmth in the former, and a quiet, tired hurt in the latter.  But if there is one element of Season 5 that will cause it to stand out most among the rest of Arrow it is Josh Segarra’s performance.  Introduced as Star City’s new district attorney, whose brutal tactics mesh well with Oliver’s, Adrian is revealed to be the masked serial killer Prometheus.  After losing a loved one to Oliver’s lethal vigilante crusade in Season 1 Adrian has become obsessed with revenge, and has created a meticulously plotted plan to tear the other man’s life apart.  Segarra is electrifying in the role, bringing a wonderfully psychotic energy to every scene he’s in. Adrian’s plan may be similar in general concept to Slade Wilson’s in season 2 but the execution is different enough to feel fresh.  Slade moved with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, destroying every aspect of Oliver’s life that he possibly could, while Adrian is much more specific.  As Adrian once says he’s always “ten steps ahead” of Oliver and this allows Segarra to go for a unique portrayal of villainy.  Adrian doesn’t show his anger openly that often and Segarra is more often than not wonderfully smug, rubbing Oliver’s face in the fact that he can’t keep up, all while making it clear there is a truly terrifying monster hiding under Adrian’s cocky grin.  Both Nykl and Segarra bring out the absolute best of Amell, whose passion for Oliver’s character seems reinvigorated by the much stronger material he receives this year.  As flawed as he is, Oliver is someone the viewer cares about deeply and Amell makes it absolutely heart wrenching to see him fight for his very soul, displaying both rare vulnerability and the constant will to survive that makes the character one to root for in the first place.

Its impossible to talk about this season of Arrow without giving special praise to its finest episode, “Kapiushon”.  The seventeenth episode of the season finds present-day Oliver a prisoner of Adrian, who is torturing him both mentally and physically, while in the past Oliver and Anatoly finally engage corrupt Russian government official Konstantin Kovar (Dolph Lundgren) in a catastrophic confrontation.  The direct thematic parallels between Oliver’s weekly adventures in present day Star City and those during his aforementioned “five years in hell” have often been criticized but that’s due to problems with execution, not with the idea of these connections in general.  “Kapiushon” proves that when the formula works, it works well.  Arrow‘s darkest ever episode by far, “Kapiushon” is all about a terrible secret about Oliver, one Anatoly discovered five years ago which present-day Adrian is determined to force Oliver to confess.  One of the great strengths of Season 5 is that it is more than anything a psychological thriller and that is never more on display than in “Kapiushon”.  While the flashback story is propelled by a standard espionage plot and has some exciting fight scenes the main focus of both sets of scenes is probing the mind and heart of a character viewers have known for five years and forcing us to wonder whether he is truly the conflicted hero we thought we knew or a dangerous stranger with monstrous desires.  The greatest thing a series as far along as Arrow can do is cause viewers to reconsider all they have seen before, and that is exactly what Season 5 in general, and “Kapiushon” in particular, does.  I imagine re-watching older episodes, especially from season 1, will be a chillingly different experience after seeing this one.

As I hope I’ve made clear, Arrow is still far, far from perfect and not all problems are being addressed.  The return of the romance that ruined the show in the first place is troubling to say the least and the day to day lives of characters other than Oliver still aren’t given enough focus, which leads to a lack of variety in location (this year if a scene isn’t a fight scene or a flashback, chances are it takes place either in the Arrow Cave or at City Hall).  Despite all this, Anatoly, the action sequences, the depth given to Oliver, and a cunning villain make this a worthwhile season.  Hopefully the finale’s explosive cliffhanger is a sign that some of the core ideas that made this season so fun will carry over into next year.  If so, it will be safe to say Arrow‘s back.

 

 

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Wonder Woman Review

Few movies have as much pressure on them to be successful as Wonder Woman did.  In addition to being the first standalone cinematic adaptation of the world’s most famous female comic book superhero, it is also the latest film in the struggling DC Extended Universe, the previous films of which have been at best, divisive (Man of Steel) and at worst, critically ostracized (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  Fortunately, Patty Jenkins’ film answers the prayers of both feminists and DC Comics fans, telling a story that is inspiring, fun, and charmingly heart-felt.

Although bookended with scenes set somewhere around the present day and after the events of Batman v Superman, the actual story of Wonder Woman takes place a hundred years previous, towards the end of World War I.  Wonder Woman herself, or just Diana (Gal Gadot) as she is refered to throughout the film, is the princess of the Amazons, a race of mystical warrior women created by Greek god Zeus to aid mankind, particularly against other-worldly threats.  After discovering that she is more powerful even than the average Amazon, Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the first man she has ever seen, from drowning in the waters off the island on which she lives.  Following a spectacularly staged bows and swords vs guns battle between the Amazons and the Germans hunting Steve, the latter describes to his isolated saviors the horrors of the “War to End All Wars”.  Against the wishes of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana frees Steve and the two set out on a thoroughly entertaining cinematic journey.

There are two factors that, above all others really make Wonder Woman the spectacular film that it is.  One is the depiction of its lead character, which really is simply, well, wonderful.  Gadot is perfect for the role, moving back and forth between Diana’s fierce, independent warrior moments and scenes of infectious compassion seamlessly.  Alan Heinberg’s screenplay is equally strong, showing a thoroughly complete understanding of who Diana is and why she is such a compelling hero.  Unlike past DC Extended Universe films, which have wasted strong leading performances from actors like Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill because of their cynical, depressing scripts, Gadot’s version of Wonder Woman shines because she is shown as being genuinely heroic.  A scene in which Diana breaks a No Man’s Land stalemate before freeing a Belgian town from German occupation is instantly iconic.  Doing so doesn’t really benefit Diana in any practical way (there’s no real advantage gained for her specific mission), she simply does so because she can and because it’s the right thing to do.  Aside from being visually stunning with some awesome, kinetic displays of Diana’s combat prowess and super strength, its a great sequence because of the way it encapsulates what a hero is and how they act in a short, simple package.

All this talk of the No Man’s Land scene brings me to the other great strength of Wonder Woman, that being its World War I setting.  Period settings have a history of helping tell great cinematic superhero stories.  Captain America: The First Avenger benefitted from introducing Steve Rogers to movie-going audiences in a World War II adventure that echoed the adventures of Indiana Jones.  X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past were able to revitalize their franchise by  inserting the titular mutant heroes into significant 20th Century events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Vietnam War.  And Zach Snyder’s vision of the altered version of 1985 in which Watchmen takes place is still one of the most intriguing and disturbing dystopias in recent cinematic history.  Wonder Woman is no exception to this rule, enjoying benefits to its storytelling similar to those the aforementioned Captain America film received.  While the wartime setting allows for a narrative mobility city-based heroes such as Batman and Spider-Man don’t get to enjoy, the most important contributions World War I adds to Diana’s story are thematic.  In the uncertain, frightening times we live in, Diana’s mission to bring peace and love feels especially poignant.  Wonder Woman‘s devotion to being an anti-war film is one of the best things about it and these themes are only further strengthened when the film’s true villain (who I won’t reveal here) proves themself to be little more than a super-powered nihilist, who doesn’t share Diana’s compassion and hope for mankind.

While Gadot is rightfully the main attraction, Wonder Woman‘s cast is strong throughout.  Pine’s role is by far the largest and most important and he brings high amounts of both charm and heart while also ably handling comedic material as Steve must adjust to Diana’s fish-out-of-water idiosyncrasies.  Furthermore, the relationship between the two is a master class in how to bring a complex, touching romance to a massive blockbuster story and is brought to life perfectly by both the impressive chemistry between Gadot and Pine as well as the complex writing.  Steve and Diana are equals and they can disagree, both welcome changes to the shallow depictions of romantic relationships that sometimes plague similar movies, but it is the strong basis for their mutual admiration that makes the relationship work so well.  Their personalities mesh well but, perhaps more importantly, they inspire each other.  Steve gives Diana faith that there is good in mankind and her strength and desire to do good make him want to be an even better man.  Other roles are all considerably smaller, but pretty strong.  Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are the most entertaining supporting players as a band of Steve’s war buddies who help him and Diana, showing an emotional depth not usually given to sidekick-type characters.  Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright make the most out of too-brief roles as Hippolyta and her militant sister Antiope respectively.  Lucy Davis, playing Steve’s secretary, gets a few good laughs out of the audience.  Elena Anaya’s Dr. Poison is the only one of the villains I can discuss without  giving anything away, and while she plays the part in an appropriately demented way, the character is little more than a smart henchwoman and doesn’t make much of an impression outside of her important thematic beat in the finale.

All in all Wonder Woman is a delight.  The important themes and spectacular depiction of the titular character prove that the most important things in a good superhero film are optimism and character.  If this is the kind of movie we can expect from DC going forward their cinematic future might finally be looking bright.

 

 

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 4 Review

Spoilers for the entirety of the series follow:

How is a comic book show to follow up a season which leaves one of its lead characters a fugitive after her love interest made a messianic sacrifice to  save the world from annihilation at the hands of an alien squid monster while the other lead received a major demotion?  That was the question Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D  faced after the end of its third year.  The exquisite fourth season provides the answers by introducing a mystically powered vigilante with a flaming skull, making thoughtful observations about humanity through the examination of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, strengthening the show’s political and social opinions, and further developing an increasingly complex and layered cast of characters, all while developing an innovative new structure for serialized broadcast dramas and maintaining the show’s clever, often deliciously self-aware, sense of humor.

Thoroughly heartbroken after both the death of her boyfriend and her own villainious actions while in a mind-controlled state, Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) has left her surrogate family at S.H.I.E.L.D, fearing that her continued prescence will only lead to tragedy for her friends.  Using increasingly ruthless and reckless tactics, Daisy has been combatting the Watchdogs, a terrorist organization that hunts and kills Inhumans, the race of genetically altered superhumans to which she belongs.  Two of Daisy’s friends, former S.H.I.E.L.D Director Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Alphonso “Mack” MacKenzie (Henry Simmons) have been deployed by new director Jeffrey Mace (Jason O’Hara) to bring Daisy in before her actions cause irreparable damage to S.H.I.E.L.D’s already fragile public relations.  Daisy’s encounters with Robbie Reyes (Gabriel Luna), the latest mortal possessed by the benevolent demon called the Ghost Rider, drag herself and the rest of the titular Agents into darker, magical, corners of the Marvel Universe.

One of the most important factors in S.H.I.E.L.D‘s success this season came from its innovative narrative structure.  A full year series order of more than twenty episodes (twenty-two in S.H.I.E.L.D‘s case) is a lot of content for TV creators to produce (roughly the equivalent runtime of ten or eleven feature films) and sci-fi/fantasy series often struggle with maintaining satisfactory pacing (S.H.I.E.L.D‘s less than perfect first season can attest to this).  While S.H.I.E.L.D had success last year in employing the mid-season winter break to essentially divide the third season in half, marking the split with a shift between two separate, yet related, villains, this time around the creators take it a step further, splitting the fourth season into three distinct “pods” of episodes, subtitled Ghost Rider, L.M.D, and Agents of Hydra respectively.   The pod structure works wonders in keeping a viewer’s attention.  Even in the earliest episodes of Ghost Rider, significant revelations and events are allowed to take place because while certain narrative threads are weaved throughout the entire season, others are concluded by the end of that pod’s short but sweet eight episode run.  While ingeniously connected by certain McGuffins, themes, and character arcs, (most importantly a troublesome dark magic book), the pods each have dinstinct highlights and specialites all their own.

Ghost Rider is the most fun pod thanks to the blockbuster action provided by the titular character and the perfect use of meta humor, but is also given a strongly beating heart by the straightforward, but emotional character beats given to Daisy and Robbie, with Bennet and Luna giving great performances.  Daisy’s arc is particularly affecting, showing both growth that is natural to the character and the series while also containing respectful and inspiring messages about important topics such as post-traumatic stress and suicidal tendencies.

L.M.D is the least exciting of the three but this is mainly because the viewer misses Luna’s electrifying presence (his triumphant return doesn’t come until the end of Agents of Hydra). That being said, L.M.D has strengths all its own, mainly the thoughtful answers to the question of what separates artificial intelligence from real life.  L.M.D is also unique in that aside from significant screen time for Coulson and Mace, the pod puts its focus more on the antagonists.  The tightening of the connection between anti-Inhuman senator Ellen Nadeer (Pamrinder Nagra), the Watchdogs, and a mysterious Russian named Ivanov (Zach McGowan) not only give our heroes some true evil to fight (with McGowan proving particularly entertaining as essentially a spoof of Bond-style villains) but provides some of the show’s most biting and effective social commentary yet (think about that again; a bigoted, idiotic politician who accepts support from known violent racists all under the manipulation of a former KGB agent. Sound familiar yet?)  But it is the pair of more gray opponents that really shine.  John Hannah is wonderfully deluded as mad scientist Holden Radcliffe.  Starting as a newly gained ally for S.H.I.E.L.D after being rescued from forced service to last season’s villain, Radcliffe proves himself to be more trouble than he’s worth, constantly doing the wrong thing for the right reason and vice versa.  The man’s decision making is seriously flawed (even when his mind isn’t being altered by  the demonic book I mentioned earlier) and L.M.D does a wonderful job of showing how much damage a person like him can cause when given too much power.  Many sci-fi and fantasy series boast of morally ambiguous characters when all they really have are heroes who occasionally make mistakes or villains with a couple soft spots.  Radcliffe is an example of a genuinely unpredictable character, one who always has a fifty-fifty chance of making the right choice.  But in situations as volatile as those the Agents constantly find themselves in, fifty-fifty simply isn’t good enough.  The other complex antagonist S.H.I.E.L.D explores this year is Radcliffe’s android assistant, Aida (Mallory Jansen), and while her real showcase comes in the final pod, Jansen is consistently outstanding throughout the season, entertaining as a stereotypical, emotionless robot, chilling as she starts to exhibit subtle anger at being used like a slave, and both endearingly and frighteningly naïve when overwhelmed by her first full experience with emotions.

Speaking of that third pod, Agents of Hydra is perhaps the most consistently strong batch of episodes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has ever produced.  The core six agents (and Mace) are thrust into a Matrix-like virtual reality called the Framework, in which America is under the control of Hydra, the secret surviving Nazi branch S.H.I.E.L.D has warred with in the past.  Daisy and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are the only ones of our heroes in control of themselves, with the others’ memories having been replaced by those of their respective Framework counterparts.  The problem is that in the Framework Leopold Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) are high ranking members of Hydra.  While the creators clearly enjoy the dystopian thrills offered by placing their characters in a 1984-like setting, the real dramatic importance is what this means said characters’ morality and psyches.  The writers come firmly down on one side of the nature vs. nurture debate, arguing that changing formative moments in peoples’ lives can fundamentally alter their identities and this is mainly articulated through the changes to Fitz.  The scary thing about Framework-May is that she is essentially the real May, just in different circumstances, demonstrating how authoritarian that character can be, but Fitz is another story.  By altering his childhood history, the Framework has turned the eternally compassionate Fitz into an absolute monster and watching Caestecker, who has long since proven himself to be the show’s best actor, mix coldly detached sadism with some of the same personality quirks the viewer associates with the sweet, loveable technician he usually plays is darkly enthralling.   But Agents of Hydra isn’t all about existential considerations of human nature.  It’s also the most political the series has ever been, making clever, undisguised comparisons of the dystopia the Agents find themselves in to Trump’s America and all the people behind the series deserve praise for sticking firmly to their ideals and not shying away from expressing their opinions for fear of controversy.  Moments in when Coulson calls out the ridiculousness of ideas like “alternative facts” are priceless.  In these uncertain times we need art to take strong stances or the people poisoning this country will run right over it.  After all, as Jemma says when reminding a Framework child of Hydra’s history, “they’re all Nazis”.  If Agents of Hydra doesn’t have a single mind blowing episode like Ghost Rider’s “The Ghost” or “The Good Samaritan” or L.M.D’s explosive finale “Self-Control”, it makes up for it with the consistent strength of every hour.

There’s so much more to praise about S.H.I.E.L.D this year.  While the characters I’ve already discussed are the real focal points of the season, the entire cast is as strong as ever.  This is also the least predictable group of episodes in the shows run, with expectations subverted at every turn.  But in summary I’ll just say this: with its fourth season Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D elevated itself, truly becoming can’t miss television.  It’s a fun, emotional, and funny series with some really important things to say, and I for one can’t wait for season five.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Following up 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t going to be an easy task.  By making a film about one of their least known superhero teams (one which includes among other members a smartass talking raccoon and a tree who repeatedly says the same single sentence) a critical and commercial hit Marvel proved they could make cinematic gold out of pretty much all of their comic book source material.  Fortunately, Marvel recognized that the key to the film’s success was writer-director James Gunn, keeping him on for the sequel and seemingly granting him more freedom than they have been known to give most other directors under their employ.  As a result, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an exceptional sequel that delivers more of the unique blend of comedy and heart that made the first movie so special.

Since saving the galaxy in the first movie, the Guardians have spent the last couple of months doing well intentioned mercenary work.  After Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) double-crosses a client the Guardians find themselves under attack before being rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell), a godlike being who also happens to be the birth father of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt).  Here the influence of The Empire Strikes Back on Vol. 2 becomes obvious, as the Guardians find themselves split into two distinct groups until the finale, with Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldanna), and Drax (Dave Bautista) remaining with Ego and his companion Mantis (Pom Klementieff) so Quill can learn more about his mysterious origins, while Rocket and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) become tangled up in the misadventures of Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Yondu (Michael Rooker).

One of the most beneficial elements of Vol. 2 is its unique structure.  A gradual pace and the splitting of the team work wonders, allowing for deeper exploration of most of the characters.  Coming off such a successful first effort many writers and directors would have been unwilling to change, only intending to repeat what audiences loved about the first film.  Gunn admirably goes the opposite way, recognizing that as great as it is, the first movie isn’t perfect, and Vol. 2‘s script does an admirable job of stripping away what didn’t work last time around.  There aren’t any boring space cops in Vol. 2 (which also means no wasting of talented actors in bit parts), nor is there any of the half-assed attempts at social commentary.  Gunn instead smartly doubles down on his strengths, those being character development, jokes, and visual vibrancy (this is possibly the most wonderfully colorful superhero film of all time).

That all being said, Vol. 2 is itself imperfect.  Technically the film is a bit of a mixed bag.  Although Gunn constructs another wonderful soundtrack of beloved songs from the 70s and 80s, the original score is nothing special.  Furthermore, there aren’t any really bold choices in terms of direction or cinematography other than the astonishing special affects and aforementioned color.  Gunn elects to let the actors and script get most of the attention, and while both are strong enough to earn this faith it is somewhat of a safe choice.  There isn’t even that much action in the film, at least not many beats that aren’t comedic in some way, with Yondu getting the only really memorable set piece.  While this may be something of a problem for some viewers (most people reasonably expect a decent amount of exciting fisticuffs when they go to a superhero movie) it’s another sacrifice in favor of telling the most emotional and funny story possible.  It really is spectacular how this film is able to either make one laugh or tug at their heartstrings in practically every scene.  Unified by the idea of what it takes to keep a family together, Vol. 2 has some really touching character arcs.  Yondu and Quill remain the best characters and Pratt and Rooker are the best things about the movie but pretty much all the major characters and actors have good showings.  Bautista is hysterical, increasing the unique energy that made Drax such an unexpected delight in the original film.  The violent sisterly rivalry between Nebula and Gamora is complicated in interesting ways and Saldana and Gillan make the most of some of the script’s most directly dramatic material (these are the only characters who aren’t really given any comedic beats).  Mantis is the only character who falls somewhat flat, and Klementieff doesn’t make much of an impression, though that may be because she’s mostly paired off with the comedic gem that is Bautista.  Rocket can seem like a jerk early in the film but this is in service of putting him through the most complicated development.  All in all, Vol. 2‘s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses and it is a delightful experience, with an unapologetic, effective optimism that the comic book genre hasn’t seen since X-Men: Days of Future Past.

 

 

Logan Review

The scene is set in a cage fight in Alberta. One of the combatants takes a quick beating before decimating his opponent in seconds.  After another scuffle at the bar, during which the audience witnesses his indestructible claws shoot out of his knuckles for the first time, the first combatant agrees to give Rogue (Anna Paquin) a ride.  It is only after this that 2000’s X-Men, the first modern superhero film, formally introduces us to the combatant, a man named Logan (Hugh Jackman), who many would come to know as the Wolverine.  Jackman would go on to play the Marvel Comics hero for seventeen years with a perfect blend of palpable rage, touching heart, and perfectly dry humor. Now that his final film as the character, aptly titled Logan, has arrived, I would like to thank Mr. Jackman for his commitment and passion.  These films are of great personal importance to me (2011’s X-Men: First Class was the first film who’s production I followed closely) as both a huge X-Men fan and general cinephile.  Additionally, the early X-Men films rejuvenated the comic book and superhero genres after 1997’s disastrous Batman and Robin turned them into laughing stocks, and they have gone on to provide moviegoers with a plethora of delightful cinematic adventures many of which are some of the most successful films of the modern era, and this is due in no small part to Jackman’s iconic take on the role.  Through this genre explosion the franchise that started it all has kept producing and Jackman has made appearances of various sizes in all X-Men related films, with the exception of last year’s Deadpool (in which he is still featured photographically, albeit not in character).  But all good things must unfortunately come to an end.  And what an end the appropriately-titled Logan is.  Jackman’s swan song is a fantastically emotional, pulse-pounding, sci-fi action thriller, wrapped in the package of a Western.  A more than fitting end for one of the truly special characters in cinematic history.

Logan is charged with feeling from the start.  The first shot of the titular character has him lying, groggy and half-asleep in the back of the limo he currently drives for work.  We can immediately see simply through Jackman’s body language that Logan is experiencing a kind of exhaustion that is hard to fathom.  The emotional  hook of the  film is established in these first few seconds.  Unlike many other comic book films, Logan is first and foremost a character study.  Previous films have filled us in on Logan’s tragic backstory (due to his powers slowing his aging he has been alive since before the Civil War and fought in every major American war between that one and Vietnam, before joining a black-ops task force whose horrific impacts on him would send him on the path to finally meeting the X-Men) but Logan digs deeper into the psychological turmoil it has caused.  Logan has lived a very long life in which he has very rarely been happy and his dark past has left him plagued with guilt.  He tends to ailing psychic mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who has also been with the X-franchise since the beginning and makes his final appearance here as well) but doesn’t really do much else.  For reasons that are more tragic than selfish he barely cares about the imminent, unexplained, extinction of mutants, the race of superhumans to which he and Charles belong, whereas once he was one of mutantkind’s foremost protectors.  He’s only living in the barest sense of the word and Jackman sells this pain with every move he makes and word he says.

But like the cowboys whose stories his so clearly echoes, Logan can’t escape trouble for long.  Evil here is manifested mostly through Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced redneck who is hunting a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), apparently the first new mutuant to manifest powers in years.  Charles has offered Laura protection and aid but given his various medical problems, and the fact that he never was any sort of warrior in the first place (he’s been paralyzed for decades), those responsibilities of course fall to Logan, as much as he tries to avoid them.  Soon the three are on the run, seeking to bring Laura to a supposed mutant promised land in Canada where she will be safe from Pierce and the even darker forces he represents (yes, there are other villains, but to describe them at all would be spoiling).

This road trip set up fully unlocks the films’ central emotional issues.  Laura has been subjected to many of the same horrors as Logan, having both sinned and been sinned against, and facing essentially a child version of himself forces Logan to finally confront his most haunting demons.  His reluctance to care for Laura as well as to accept the full scope of the task laid before him could be seen as cold-hearted but they are nothing more than the affects of lifetimes of tragedy.  Logan has made surrogate families before, in both the X-Men and others, but things never end well.  He doesn’t try to escape his heroic calling or feelings because he doesn’t care.  He does so because he cares too much.  While Laura forces Logan to face his fear of intimacy, it is Charles’ actions that force him to face his guilt.  Charles treats protecting Laura mostly  as a joyous adventure, one last hurrah as a hero before the problems of his aging become inescapable.  For Logan it is a much more serious affair.  He is the one who has to combat Pierce and his mercenaries after all, and the correct action is unclear to him.  Logan is tired of fighting and is beating himself up over the many lives he has already taken (regardless of what evil lives they were) and yet the redemptive path offered him is one in which he faces enemies that must be utterly decimated.  While protecting Laura seems the right path, will killing even more monsters save Logan’s soul or condemn it even further?  These are the kinds of questions Logan is asking and they lead to some of the most complex, heartfelt emotion any film in recent memory has presented.

The film’s leading trio are more than up to the challenge posed to them by the script’s intense material.  Keen makes a powerful impression in her feature film debut, managing to bring to life a very complex character while performing alongside two acting legends.  Laura has seen and experienced far too many horrible things for someone so young and yet maintains an admirable internal strength and Keen displays all the necessary fear, rage, and occasional compassion that the role calls for.  Any child actor would be forgiven for making Laura too stoic, to the point of being wooden, but Keen instead makes her both empathetic and fascinating.  Stewart’s final outing as Professor X is a memorable one, with him deftly portraying a brilliant man who cannot deal with the fact that his mind is decaying.  The relationship between Charles and Logan is one of the film’s greatest strengths, with Jackman and Stewart expertly depicting the strained dynamic of two men who are, in all but blood, father and son.  Charles’ frustrations often get the best of him leading him to lash out at Logan, despite the latter being the person who cares most for him, and Stewart makes these verbal beatings venonomous before reminding us that at his core Charles is a kind soul.  While his companions are deftly portrayed, the most enthralling character in the film is rightfully Logan himself.  Jackman has always given his all whenever playing Wolverine, even in some of the X-franchise’s less strong outings, and it is blatantly obvious that he genuinely loves his character in a way not all blockbuster stars do.  That all being said, in Logan he seems to have somehow found an even higher gear, as hard to believe as that may be.  Jackman weaves his way through the maze of powerful emotions Logan is navigating spectaculary, offering among other things righteous fury, self-destructive guilt, and pure love.  At one point Logan growls to Laura that he is “fucked up” and indeed that more than anything is what the film is about; whether or not he can fix himself.  It’s a character arc of rare dramtic weight for an action blockbuster and one more genuine than even most other traditional dramas made today.  Logan is angry at himself, angry at the world, but most of all yearning for a chance to be better, and finally find peace.  The role is a dream come true for someone as in love with acting as Jackman is and his mesmerizing performance is one for the ages, worthy of an Academy Award.

While Logan‘s most important function is to serve as a fitting end to Jackman and Stewart’s tenures as their characters (which it does more than adequately) credit must be given to writer-director James Mangold for crafting one of the most enthralling, complete cinematic visions in recent memory.  Taking advantage of the film’s R-rating Mangold crafts brutal, exquisitely choreographed action sequences.  This is certainly the most violent mainstream superhero film of all time (young children should be brought to this film under no circumstances) but Mangold doesn’t just have blood spew for the sake of it.  While comic book fans can rightly delight at finally seeing Jackman’s take on the character fully unleashed (the character has a wealth of dark and violent comic book storylines that haven’t been fully invoked tonally on screen before, due to the proceeding films’ PG-13 ratings) the extreme violence also serves an important thematic purpose.  In a movie which studies so deeply the affect Logan’s multiple lifetimes of fighting and war have had on his psyche, displaying the violence in any other matter would seem like a cop-out.  Lingering shots of severed limbs and impaled heads are not there for shock value but to fully present the viewer with the anguish Logan faces in choosing to take yet more lives, even for good purposes.  Additionally, the bloodshed isn’t even the best thing about the film’s exhilarating action sequences.  No, the best things about these fights (at least in my opinion) are their speed and impact.  Perhaps the film’s action highlight is a long tracking shot in which Logan runs through a forest dispatching enemies left and right.  The Wolverine moves with such velocity and such effective ferocity that Pierce’s thugs barely have time to raise their weapons after seeing the last of their comrades fall before they themselves meet the same fates.  All of the film’s technical elements, from the crisp cinematography to the spartan score contribute to the same affect of immersing the viewer completely in Logan’s damaged perspective.

The script, authored by Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green is worthy of special attention.  While Jackman is credited with developing the thematic thrust of the film, these three men have developed a complete story that is close to perfect.  While the X-Men franchise has always had real world relevance, with the plights of mutants being a metaphor for the experience of all oppressed minorities, Logan has a particular timeliness and topicality that is admirable.  The horrors caused by prejudice are on full display in the behavior of the film’s villains, not just towards mutants, but toward impoverished Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.  Logan isn’t just combatting Pierce and company, but also their ideology, one in which a bunch of white men profit from the violent exploitation of minorities, including young children.  Jackman, Mangold, and the rest of Logan‘s creators have managed to make the  sendoff to a cinematic superhero a powerful statement against Trump and those who follow similar ideologies to his (one of the parties Logan drives in his limo is a bunch of drunk frat boys who chant USA while passing Mexican immigrants being deported at the border) while maintaining the film’s emotional focus.  Logan also wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve and benefits from Mangold’s ability to synthesize a multitude of inspirations into a whole that is still completely original.  Shane is both watched and quoted by characters in Logan and the latter is perhaps thematically linked most closely to the former as well as to Unforgiven.  The film’s most basic plot elements and its tone both recall Children of Men while its pacing and style of action owe a debt to Mad Max: Fury Road.

Despite all its technical brilliance, the most appealing thing about Logan is its heart.  Not since Christopher Nolan dropped Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne into a literal and figurative hell in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises has a comic book film offered the same amount of emotional complexity and psychological exploration on display in Logan, even if the two are completely different films.  To make comparisons to classic films, if Nolan’s Batman trilogy is the comic book movie equivalent of The Godfather saga Logan is very much Taxi Driver.  Both of the latter two films are extremely gritty and intimate, probing deeply into the psyches of two truly remarkable characters, brought to life through titanic performances by two of the world’s greatest actors, all while building to incredibly cathartic climaxes, of differing moral significances.  Once more thank you to all who worked on Logan for producing what is sure to be an all-time classic movie, and thank you Hugh Jackman for seventeen years of wonderful entertainment, and for being instrumental in making me truly love movies.

My Oscar Nominations

Now that the Academy Award nominations have  been released and the ceremony is fast approaching I thought it would be fun to post what I would have nominated (out of the films I saw) if I was a member of the Academy.  While this year’s group of nominations isn’t as predictably bland as many in the past there are still some glaring mistakes.  Additionally, I simply wanted to provide recognition to what I consider to be the year’s best films and the people who made them.  In terms of format I will first list (in alphabetical order) what I believe the Best Picture nominees should have been and provide some reasoning for their inclusions in my list, as well as listing any other categories I believe those films should have received nominations in.  Finally I will provide a master list of  my hypothetical nominations, adding those which recipients which do not belong to a film I believe deserves a Best Picture nomination.

Best Picture Nominees:

Arrival

What would happen if aliens were discovered on Earth?  This question is the basic premise for literally hundreds of films but it is the wholly original, unique answers provided by  Arrival, as well as the film’s technical brilliance on essentially all fronts, that made Denis Villeneuve’s latest directorial effort one of the absolute best films of 2016.  Eric Heiserrer’s brilliant screenplay (based on the  short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang) tracks Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor, as she attempts to translate between the American government and two aliens that have landed in Montana in one of twelve UFO’s that have appeared around the world.  Banks is  teamed with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist who at first seems to be simple comic relief but eventually becomes hugely important to the film’s narrative.  It is worth noting that while the synopsis I just provided describes a more cerebral, conceptually focused film, Arrival was one of the most genuinely emotional films of last year, but revealing any details of the character arcs would risk spoiling one of the greatest cinematic plot twists of recent memory, one which raises Arrival from an intriguing and well-constructed sci-fi thriller to a genuinely awe-inspiring experience that recalls the sense of wonder provided by titans of sci-fi such as the original Star Wars and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  Villeneuve again proves his directorial genius and Adams gives an astounding performance (her lack of nomination is possibly the single greatest mistake the Academy made this year).

Other Nominations Arrival deserves:

Best Director- Denis Villeneuve

Best Actress in a Leading Role- Amy Adams

Best Actor in a Supporting Role- Jeremy Renner

Best Adapted Screenplay- Eric Heiserrer

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography

Captain America: Civil War

Some may balk at this inclusion but I stand by my belief that the third film in Marvel’s Captain America trilogy is a profound cinematic experience that simulatenously provides epic superhero entertainment, intriguing ideological questions and statements, and profound emotion.  Abandoning traditional comic book and action movie formula works wonders for this film, which instead focuses on the ideological and emotional conflicts that lead to the shattering of the Avengers, while still serving as a poignant study of lead character Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans).

This separation is brought about by the introduction of the Sokovia Accords, a proposal to place the famed superhero team under U.N. control and the complications that this brings to the investigation of a terror attack that not-so-super villain Zemo (Daniel Brühl) has pinned on Rogers’ WWII buddy/surrogate brother Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), now an ex-brainwashed assassin.  Half the super team follows Rogers in refusing to submit to this oversight, while those who do agree to sign (including Rogers’ best friend Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson) are headed by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).  That all may sound complicated but Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley’s screenplay, expertly adapted from Marvel Comics’ Civil War comic series, does a fine job of keeping things streamlined and honing in on the strain their highly compelling characters are dealing with.

The brotherly directing duo of Joe and Anthony Russo do absolutely outstanding work, crafting a more complete cinematic vision than even some of 2016’s more awards friendly films.  Continuing their innovative action work from Civil War’s predecessor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russos craft immaculate fight scenes that make unique and thrilling use of their characters’ superhuman abilities (their depiction of Rogers’ and Barnes’ enhanced strength levels provide excellent cinematic combat that is viscerally exhilarating and occasionally quite humorous).  An epic battle between the two factions of the Avengers is the single most complex and impressive display of technical filmmaking that 2016 gave us.  That being said the Russos are anything but style over substance directors, and the emotional character interactions they capture are just as thrilling as the costumed fisticuffs.

Of course those interactions would not be what they are without the actors playing them out.  Fortunately, Civil War makes great use of the extensive bullpen of talented performers that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built, assembling 2016’s most talented cast.  The interpersonal dynamics between Marvel’s various heroes have always been the true stars of its films, even more so than their explosive action sequences or reliable humor and Civil War fully recognizes this, giving its star studded acting line-up many chances to truly let loose.  Despite its focus on Steve Rogers’ story, Civil War is very much an ensemble film and recurring Marvel actors such as Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie are delightful despite appearances that leave the viewer wanting more.  However, there is definitely a core group within the cast that are the film’s true focal charcters; those played by Evans, Stan, Johansson, Downey Jr., and Chadwick Boseman, who’s dynamic debut as King T’Challa/ The Black Panther gave 2016 its most exciting new film character.  Boseman and Stan are scene stealers, giving immersive portrayals of rage and regret respectively.  Johansson is as quietly nuanced as ever, and it is clear Natasha is the perfect part for her.  Marvel’s lead woman proves why she has the position, exquisitely portraying sorrow, love, and yearning for redemption, all while constantly making the audience remember her character is always the smartest in the room, even while surrounded by characters who are defined by their genius.  A scene in which Romanoff comforts Rogers after a first act funeral is simply breathtaking, dripping with affection.  Johansson and Evans make for the most heartwarming, genuine pair in a film full of intriguing and complex relationships.  Downey Jr. is a force of nature in this movie, using the layered, tragic role the Russos have given him to craft what is his best performance, both as Tony Stark and otherwise, since his now legendary turn in 2008’s original Iron Man film.  He is even able to inject a subtle rage and pain into many of his always amusing one liners, simultaneously offering humor and pathos in a way that is wholly unique. While his costars also deserve the highest of praise, tying the ensemble, and the film as a whole, together is Chris Evans.  Captain America is not an easy part to play without seeming corny or simply unbelievable (his defining character traits are essentially his unwavering idealism and nobility) but it is one Evans has always thrived with, adding complexity and charm to a character that could easily have neither.  Civil War offers material of an even greater emotional depth than some of his past films and Evans makes the most of it, wonderfully depicting a man who’s ideals and emotions are pulling him in a million different directions.  Evans takes advantage of the opportunity of working against such talented co-stars and his scenes opposite Johansson, Downey Jr., and Stan in particular are downright electric.

While I could go on and on about Civil War, I will sum things up by saying that it is an engrossing, immensely enjoyable film that defies the expectations many have of superhero stories.  While this movie carries important messages about conflicting ideals and contrasting relationships (those that can break versus those that are everlasting), it is, at its core, an inspiring film about honor, hope, and love.  All things we could use more of right now.

Other Nominations Captain America: Civil War Deserves:

Best Director- Joe and Anthony Russo

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Chris Evans

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role- Scarlett Johansson

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Robert Downey Jr.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Chadwick Boseman

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Sebastian Stan

Best Adapted Screenplay- Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Best Film Editing

 

Hell or High Water 

2016’s little film that could (my greatest pleasure when reading the real nominations was seeing that this snagged a Best Picture nod despite its late summer release date and action-film influences) is an enthralling modern take on the Western that skillfully portrays the chaos caused by America’s current economic problems.  Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, who with the combination of scripts of last year’s drug-war morality play Sicario along with this one is proving to be one of the most talented screenwriters working today, conveying both information and character in the most realistic, genuine dialogue one can find in a Hollywood film.  Hell or High Water follows brothers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) as they pull a string of small-time bank robberies across Texas in order to prevent a bank from foreclosing on their recently-deceased mother’s farm, while being pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges).

This main quartet is thrilling to watch.  Pine steps away from his usual heroic roles to depict in Toby a seemingly average man who quietly simmers with sinister rage and greed.  Foster is a livewire, providing delightful bravado as a criminal who loves what he does while still making it clear Tanner is thoroughly broken (a scene in which Tanner recounts the events that landed him in jail for years is suitably moving).  Birmingham and Bridges have the highly entertaining rapport of a good pair of Law and Order detectives (Bridges is clearly in his element as an aging, maverick lawman who is too good at his job to walk away) but they are slightly outdone by their criminal counterparts (Bridges received a nomination for Actor in a Supporting Role that Foster is more deserving of).

David Mackenzie provides subtle direction that perfectly matches Sheridan’s minimalist script, with standout moments coming in both the film’s wonderfully simple robbery sequences and contemplative character moments (a bout of brotherly wrestling between Toby and Tanner is a master class in how to visually portray character history and emotion).  This admirably restrained direction is well aided by some of 2016’s best cinematography, which beautifully illustrates both the beauty and desperation of the American South.   Everything builds to a thrilling, old-fashioned, chase-gunfight combination that recalls something out of an early Clint Eastwood movie, leading into a quiet, yet intense, coda.  All in all Hell or High Water is one of 2016’s best, and certainly most likeable, films.

Other Nominations Hell or High Water Deserves:

Best Director- David Mackenzie

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Chris Pine

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Ben Foster

Best Original Screenplay- Taylor Sheridan

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography

Jackie

While depending on the audience, a current film showing the glory, idealism, and honor of possibly the greatest family to ever inhabit the White House may be more disheartening than anything, there is no denying the masterful filmmaking craft on display in Pablo Larraín’s JackieJackie depicts famed First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days following her legendary husband’s assassination.  While more than anything a showcase for Portman, who is absolutely incredibly in the role, every aspect of the film functions exactly as it should.  Larraín’s assured direction is aided by cinematography that beautifully recreates the aesthetic of 60’s films, further immersing the viewer in what is an already  absolutely engrossing story.  Screenwriter Noah Oppenheim created an astounding script that both tells Jackie’s incredibly emotional, sensitive story with respect and empathy while also carefully critiquing American culture’s obsession with celebrity image.  The film’s nonlinear structure necessitated skilled editing and Sebastián Sepulveda is more than up for the challenge, harmonizing the film’s three disparate timelines in a stunning finale.  While these technical displays cannot be ignored, make no mistake, this is Portman’s film.  She manages the dual feat of disappearing into the role, fully becoming her famed and admired subject while still being able to depict an astoundingly wide range of emotions.  An early scene in which Jackie recounts to a reporter (Billy Crudup) in gruesome detail what she remembers of her husbands death is one of the most harrowing and emotional scenes of last year, with Portman simultaneously conveying grief, horror, and rage.  This may be the greatest performance of 2016, regardless of category or gender. That all being said, Jackie deserves credit for being a much more complete cinematic experience than other 2016 performance pieces such as Fences and Manchester by the Sea.

Other Nominations Jackie Deserves:

Best Director- Pablo Larraín

Best Actress in a Leading Role- Natalie Portman

Best Original Screenplay- Noah Oppenheim

Best Film Editing

Best Cinematography

La La Land

2016’s critical darling and I believe the most likely film to win Best Picture deserves most, if not all, of the praise it has received.  Damien Chazelle deserves credit for simply getting the film made; original, live-action musicals are rare these days, compared to their heyday in Hollywood’s golden years.  The infectious fun of seeing bonafide movie stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing and dance their way through their third onscreen romance is why we go to the movies.  And movie stars is the only way to describe them.  Both are able to weave between subtle, yet effective, humor and powerful emotion (even if he is slightly more effective at the former and she shines the most with the latter) and are endlessly charming.  Gosling’s dedication to learning how to play the piano shows in some stunning long takes, even if Stone shines slightly more in the rest of the musical sequences.  Those musical sequences are absolutely stunning, if sometimes too short.  While some of the lyrical sections are brief, everything we get is astounding, with some of the best dance choreography I have ever seen.  This all creates a delightful two hours.  Unfortunately the film is longer than that and the last ten minutes lets everything else down.  Throughout the film it is clear Chazelle wanted to make both an old-school musical romance and a modern drama about the difficulties of achieving artistic dreams.  This mix works for most of the film’s runtime (even if the former element is more entertaining than the latter) but the two ideas prove to be too disparate to create a satisfying ending.  La La Land is a very good, but not great, film, that deserves the nominations it received from the Academy, even if it shouldn’t win in any of the major categories.

Other Nominations La La Land Deserves:

Best Actor in a Leading Role- Ryan Gosling

Best Actress in a Leading Role- Emma Stone

Best Cinematography

Best Original Score

Moonlight

Perhaps the film on this list with the most contemporary real world significance, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an exquisite portrait of the black and gay experiences in America.  Jenkins’ screenplay, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is elegantly simple (there’s only one or two suprises here) but explores its thoroughly engaging characters with great depth.  The story can be seen almost as the biography of a fictional character, following a young black man named Chiron from childhood, through adolescence, and into young adulthood.  The film’s dramatic arc comes from Chiron, played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) gradually accepting his homosexuality, facing tragic repercushions of institutionalized racism and homophobia along the way.  Moonlight is a film in which basically everything works.  Colorful yet naturalistic cinematography aids Jenkins’ assured direction which shines brightest in its unique visual representations of Chiron’s developing sexuality.  Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes all do admirable work even if the painful shyness and anxiety of their character makes him something of an enigma.  Supporting actors Mahershala Ali and Naomi Harris are able to craft performances that are even more dynamic, though they are given the advantages of much more verbally expressive characters.  Everything on screen benefits from fluid, deliberate editing that knows when to cut a scene short, even if the moments where the film quietly lingers on a scene are more noticeably impressive. In summary, Moonlight is 2016’s most important film with powerful emotion and poignant social commentary.

Other Nominations Moonlight Deserves:

Best Director- Barry Jenkins

Best Actor in a Supporting Role- Mahershala Ali

Best Actress in a Supporting Role- Naomi Harris

Best Adapted Screenplay- Barry Jenkins

Best Film Editing

Master List Of Nominees:

Best Picture:

Arrival

Captain America: Civil War

Hell or High Water

Jackie

La La Land

Moonlight

Best Director:

Denis Villeneuve- Arrival

Joe and Anthony Russo- Captain America: Civil War

David Mackenzie- Hell or High Water

Pablo Larraín- Jackie

Barry Jenkins- Moonlight

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role:

Chris Evans- Captain America Civil War

Denzel Washington- Fences

Chris Pine- Hell or High Water

Casey Affleck- Manchester by the Sea

Ryan Gosling- La La Land

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:

Amy Adams- Arrival

Scarlett Johansson- Captain America: Civil War

Natalie Portman- Jackie

Emma Stone- La La Land

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role:

Jeremy Renner- Arrival

Robert Downey Jr.- Captain America: Civil War

Chadwick Boseman- Captain America: Civil War

Sebastian Stan- Captain America: Civil War

Ben Foster- Hell or High Water

Lucas Hedges- Manchester by the Sea

Mahershala Ali- Moonlight

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role:

Viola Davis-Fences

Michelle Williams- Manchester by the Sea

Naomi Harris- Moonlight

Best Original Screenplay:

Taylor Sheridan- Hell or High Water

Noah Oppenheim- Jackie

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Eric Heisserer- Arrival

Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley- Captain America: Civil War

Barry Jenkins- Moonlight

Best Film Editing:

Arrival

Captain America: Civil War

Hell or High Water

Jackie

Moonlight

Best Cinematography:

Arrival

Hell or High Water

Jackie

La La Land

Best Original Score:

La La Land

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legion Chapter 1 Review

“Is this real?” David Haller (Dan Stevens) demands of his girlfriend Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) in the closing moments of the first episode of creator Noah Hawley’s Legion.  This question is representative of both  the guiding appeal of the show and the reaction I believe many viewers will have to it.  Being that Legion is loosely set within the world of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men film series, casual viewers may be reluctant to accept it.  Superheroes are taking over television just as they have film and while being a longtime comic-book fan I couldn’t be happier, I understand why members of  the general audience may be suffering some fatigue.  However this is actually where much of Legion’s appeal lies; this show (or at least its pilot) stands apart as highly original and unique among comic book television adaptations and television in general.  Admirable technical production, mind-bending twists, heartfelt emotion, and a powerful performance by Dan Stevens are just some of the many wonderful qualities on display in Legion‘s extended debut.

Despite being one of the lesser known characters in Marvel’s X-Men family of comics, the story of David Haller (Legion is his code-name in the comics) lends itself to teleivision quite well.  Comic-book David has severe multiple personality disorder and while the show’s pilot leaves his diagnosis vague, (even if the voices that can often be noticed quietly speaking in the background hint at a condition that is at least similar) it doubles down on using him as an unreliable narrator (a trend becoming more and more popular on cable), questioning whether David is truly a mutant and whether or not the supernatural events he experiences are truly happening or not, and if so, how.  Around half of this 90 minute episode consists of scenes depicting David’s time in a mental institution (calling them flashbacks may not actually prove true given the show’s nonlinear storytelling).  While the show is clearly designed less as an exploration of mental illness and more to entice audience members with the question of how much of what they are witnessing is actually happening versus how much is a construct of David’s troubled mind, it doesn’t sensationalize David’s condition.  The viewer wants David to get better, even if his mental state opens up intriguing storytelling possibilities.

Much of the sympathy the viewer has for David is earned by Stevens.  The Downton Abbey alum does admirable work here, playing David’s anger and confusion as well as his kindness and humor with equal grace.  The pilot’s constant alternation between time frames allow Stevens to craft a multifaceted performance that is highlighted by the differences between scenes in which David’s behavior is  regulated by medication and those when it is not.  Throughout all of this Stevens imbues his performance with a foundational sense of longing and pain that is moving.

While Stevens himself is elctrifying, the first episode of Legion is strong across all categories.  The supporting cast is solid, even if Keller and Aubrey Plaza (playing David’s best friend) make noticeably stronger impressions than other actors such as Katie Aselton and Hamish Linklater (as David’s sister and a possible government agent respectively).  The first episode is expertly paced and edited, knowing which scenes need to be allowed to slow down and breathe, while also making use of a couple of well-executed montages.  One does wonder, however, if the show will have to speed up a little in future episodes with traditional run times.  Despite all this, the real star of Legion other than Stevens is Hawley’s style and visual storytelling.  This is an aesthetically stunning episode of television with vibrant cinematography that adds to the emotion of every scene.  An early scene in which David kisses Syd’s reflection in a window to work their way around her phobia of physical contact is one of the most beautiful, visually and emotionally, that I have seen on television in a while.  Skilled direction ensures that the viewer recognizes they are seeing everything from David’s perspective, which adds to the show’s mystery, given that we know how unreliable that perspective is.

Ultimately Legion is a gem, with one of the best pilots a comic book show has ever had, behind only those of Jessica Jones and Daredevil.  The questions this show asks are highly intriguing and I believe anyone who watches this episode will feel compelled to stay with the series to find the answers.  While television savvy offers the most probable explanations to some of the most obvious questions (I for one don’t predict that the series will end by saying David has truly imagined all his powers), but there are many more areas in which it is  genuinely impossible for me to see where it is going.  And that is very exciting.  Is this real?  I certainly hope so.

 

Jackie Review

Towards the end of Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s powerful new film about famed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), an aide tells the remarkable titular woman that,”People need their history.  They need to know that real men actually lived here.”  This statement could serve as Jackie‘s mantra, being that the film argues for the historical value of citizens having intimate knowledge of their political leaders despite acknowledging that the media and political systems are often disrespectful of these famous figures’ privacy all while effectively telling its subject’s emotional true story with astonishing depth.

Larraín’s film depicts Portman’s Jackie in the period immediately following the assassination of her legendary husband.  This limited time period allows the film to be much more emotional and intimate than standard biopics which often span the entire lives of their subjects.  The specific historical context of the film allows Larraín to craft a powerful exploration of grief as well as American celebrity and political culture.  The film employs a framing device of an interview Jackie provided to a reporter (Billy Crudup) with most of the narrative being featured in flashbacks to Jackie’s struggle with deciding how best to proceed with memorial services, determined to ensure that her husband’s legacy is worthy of the man she loved.

Though Jackie is a fantastic film all around, the most impressive aspect is Natalie Portman’s performance.  Portman clearly dedicated herself to accurately portraying her character’s well known dignity and specific mannerisms (such as Kennedy’s distinctive voice and accent) while maintaining the expressive freedom necessary for the intensely  emotional material the film’s script provides her with.  Portman gracefully moves between thinly veiled heartbreak (scenes in which Jackie must be strong in front of her children are particularly moving) and justified anger and frustration.  A scene in which Kennedy describes to Cruddup’s reporter her efforts to put bits of her husband’s brain back inside his head after he was shot is immensely haunting.  The combination of Larraín’s intimate direction with Portman’s dedication and talent creates one of,  if not the greatest screen performances of 2016.

While Portman’s performance is its greatest individual element, Jackie is also very  strong in most other respects. As mentioned earlier Larraín provides assured, confident direction that captures the film’s emotional  moments perfectly.  The film’s supporting cast is sparse, with only Crudup, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, and Greta Gerwig being given any significant acting tasks.  While all four do adequate work Sarsgaard has the largest part (given that he plays Robert Kennedy) and is the most commendable, showing constant hurt and tired rage that adds to the film’s tragic weight.  Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is beautiful, featuring a rough, grainy look that is more reminiscent of classic films than modern dramas, which is appropriate given Jackie‘s deep seated historical themes.

In summary Jackie is a powerful, wonderfully executed film.  Its unique application of more visionary filmmaking techniques to a true story elevates Lorraín’s film above most standard biopics.  Natalie Portman’s performance is electrifying, making her one of the most obvious, deserving choices for an Academy Award nomination.  Jackie is simply one of 2016’s best films.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

In 1977 lucky movie audiences got to experience George Lucas’ original Star Wars film for the first  time.  In the nearly forty years since the original film (now referred to as Episode IV of a still continuing saga and subtitled A New Hope) Star Wars has become the most popular film franchise of all time and created its own sub-culture with products in mediums ranging from action figures to comic books.  Throughout these four decades unanswered questions have remained about the backstory of the original film, one of which being how the scrappy Rebel Alliance originally stole the plans for the evil Empire’s Death Star, the planet killing machine that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo would later destroy.  That is the story told by the recently released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and it is told in exhilarating, though certainly not flawless, fashion.

The first in a set of stand alone films planned by the Star Wars universe’s new owners at Disney, Rogue One is unique amongst its sibling films in many aspects, including but not limited to tone, structure, themes, and the prescences (or lack thereof) of certain franchise hallmarks.  Much of this indivuality comes from the fact that Rogue One is devoted to telling a story of war.  While certainly not as emotionally charged or brutal as real-world war films Rogue One clearly draws inspiration from many war genre greats (with echoes particularly of Saving Private Ryan and Zero Dark Thirty).  The mixing of  these influences with those of past Star Wars films produces a film that is simultaneously blissfully adventurous and thematically impactful.  In regards to tone, the military focused narrative makes Rogue One easily the second darkest Star Wars film (behind only the tragic, occasionally disturbing, Revenge of the Sith).  Rogue One is also by far the fastest paced film in the franchise and this for the most part works to its advantage adding a sense of increased urgency and suspense (although the film’s opening ten minutes feel just a tad rushed).  The film’s action sequences are often breathtaking, making up for the lack of lightsaber duels with engaging blaster fights and stunning space battles that employ a unique stylistic blend of classic Star Wars direction with that found in modern military films such as Fury or Lone Survivor.

Rogue One‘s ability to stand out among the Star Wars films can also be attributed to its unique cast and characters.  While packed with delightful cameos from familiar faces from past films, at its core Rogue One follows a small military unit and this departure from the episodic films’ focus on the Skywalker family and its member’s friends makes Rogue One feel fresh.  Felicity Jones portrays Jyn Erso, who has been scorned by her involvement with an extremist offshoot of the Rebel Alliance and childhood tragedy and who must reacquire her revolutionary values to strike a blow against the Empire and avenge loved ones.  Jones is consistently impressive and occasionally more, but she doesn’t make quite as much of an impression as Daisy  Ridley did in 2015’s Episode VII.  Diego Luna’s conflicted Cassian Andor has perhaps the film’s most well executed character arc.  Andor’s character provides the most opportunites for the film to explore it’s themes of war, operating with morally grey efficiency not usually seen in Star Wars (where morality seems to be strictly divided between good and evil, even if villains have been known to redeem themselves).  Alan Tudyk as reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO is hysterical and highly entertaining given his lack of knowledge of human social cues and his not entirely purged bloodlust.  Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe is perhaps the emotional center of the group and his performance as a warrior who preaches the ways of the Force is exhilarating, with Chirrut providing some spectacular hand-to-hand combat scenes. Jiang Wen portrays Baze Malbus, Chirrut’s partner and his struggle with his own belief in the Force is compelling, though very  understated.  Of the main Rebel unit only Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is a weak link.  Bodhi’s desire for redemption is thinly developed and unlike Wen’s, Ahmed’s performance is not dynamic enough to elevate the limited scenes that focus directly on his character.  Outside of the core team, Forrest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, and Mads Mikkelsen round out  the film’s main cast.  Mikkelsen and Mendelsohn both do adequate work (the former as the film’s main Imperial villain and the latter as Jyn Erso’s conflicted father) but their characters are not developed enough to be truly memorable.  Whittaker’s performance on the other hand, is simply bizarre with a strangely raspy voice and emotions that don’t even always make sense.  Whittaker seems to be trying to make his Rebel extremist (really more of a terrorist) seem broken and dangerous but he just becomes irritating for the most part.

Ultimately Rogue One is one of the most entertaining films of the year as well as a worthy addition to the larger Star Wars series.  While the film’s characters are not always the deepest its mixture of classic Star Wars elements with thoughtful war genre elements make up for its flaws.