Saturday, February 24, 2018

Film Review: Game Night

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

Sometimes you just need to have a fun, silly movie to escape into for a few hours.

And that is what I found with Game Night.

The movie isn't the most earth-shattering or innovative.  But playing within the genre, the film was wonderfully diverting in its absurdity.

The story revolves around married couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), a couple that is super competitive with each other and with other couples.  They get much enjoyment from their regular game nights with fellow couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury) along with man-child Ryan (Billy Magnussen.  Max and Annie quite studiously avoid their neighbor, the uber-creepy, poodle-cuddling police officer Gary (Jesse Plemons).  Things take a turn when Max's more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) invites all of them and Ryan's date Sarah (Sharon Horgan) to a game night at his posh house.  He tells them that the game involves one of them being kidnapped and they will have to follow a series of clues to win the game.  But when two seemingly real-life thugs kidnap Brooks in front of them, the rest of the group thinks that this is all part of the game.  What follows is a series of escalating misunderstandings and hilarity.

Game Night is one of those comedies that just seems to click.  Comedy is highly subjective, but I found most of the humor genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

The chemistry between the actors is great.  Despite the 10-year age difference, Bateman and McAdams mesh incredibly well.  I was worried that their competitiveness was going to devolve into a predictable antagonism between the two.  Instead the competition makes them tight-knit partners who strategize together.  Morris also has sharpened his comedic line-delivery from his years on The New Girl and it shows.  Most of the rest of the cast does a good job delivering the humor.

But special accolades must be given to Plemons as Gary.  This character is that socially awkward neighbor with whom any interaction is awkward and painful.  Everything he says and does is off-putting in the cringiest way.  And Plemons gives total commitment to embodying all of that awkwardness.  Even in the still photos in Gary's house, you can see Plemons give off that dead-eyed, slightly psychopathic stare that makes you both scared of him and sad for him.  Every time Plemons was on screen he made me laugh loudly.

Assisting these performances are directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein.  One of the things that struck me while watching this was how visually dynamic the movie was.  Many comedies are very lazy when it comes to the directing, hoping that the humor of the words and the talent of the actors will carry the movie.  But Daley and Goldstein use the camera to intensify the action and enhance the humor.  They do a fascinating thing where the very wide shots make the buildings and the cars look like game pieces on a board.  It is a subtle visual trick that pulls you in.  They also have an incredibly fun single-take "keep away" game run through a large mansion that makes you feel like you are playing too.  And the film Plemon's Gary like a villain in a horror movie.  Rather than darken the tone, it makes Plemons performance pop even more.  I can still see in my mind's eye with great delight the scene where the group all shows up at Gary's door.  The staging and lighting of that scene show great care and humor.

They also know how to use a soundtrack.  Particularly, their strategic use of Queen at the beginning and the end of the film hit just the right emotional tones to draw you in and leave you feeling good.

And that is part of the fun of Game Night: you feel like you are also in the game.  The characters feel very relatable even when being horribly obsurd.  And the absurdity escalates while their upper-middle class world clashes with the violent underworld.  In a scene where Annie has to dig a bullet out Max's arm, she doesn't have rubbing alcohol and a leather belt for him to bite.  Instead she uses a Chardonay and gives him a doggy chew toy.  The insanity of the scene escalates and gets funnier the further it goes.

One of the things I liked about the film was that it wasn't about how this night of excitement was a welcome break from their boring lives.  The characters love their ordinary married life.  In fact, one of the sub plots involves Max not wanting kids because he loves the way his life with Annie has been thus far.  It was interesting for the movie to tackling this growing problem between couples who opt out of family.  There is a selfishness highlighted here and a fundamental misunderstanding of marriage as primarily a means of personal fulfillment rather than self-sacrificial love.  But as the movie goes on, we see that their closeness opens them up to new possibilities.

While I don't think the movie was intending to get too terribly deep, it was nice to have a movie that showed a normal marriage with happily married couple go through an absolutely bonkers game night.

image by Yasir72.multan

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Film Review: Black Panther

I was worried that this movie had been over-hyped.  But to my pleasant surprise, the movie is quite excellent.

Black Panther is a solo film of the title character (played by Chadwick Boseman) set in the fictionalize African kingdom of Wakanda.  Because of a secret deposit of the extra-terrestrial metal known as vibranium, Wakanda has built a hidden kingdom that is more technologically advanced than any in the world.  Because of the events of Captain America: Civil War, T'Challa (Boseman), must now ascend the throne of Wakanda.  He is accompanied often by his stalwart bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), his technologically gifted sister Shuri (Letitia Wright),  and the love of his life: the Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o).  Together they pursue South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and meet up with CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman).  This takes them on a path that leads them to cross paths with a foe named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who has deep and unexpected ties to the Wakandan people.

Even though this character was introduced in a previous film, Black Panther is essentially an origin story and it has to carry with it all of the baggage that this entails.  But writer/director Ryan Coogler (along with fellow writer Joe Robert Cole) uses this as an opportunity to do a great deal of world-building.  Wakanda is a fascinating place.  Coogler creates a rich and ancient African mythology and crafts a world that imagines great technological advancements springing forth from this African culture.  The movie does an excellent job of blending not only the balance but the tension between tribal traditions and global modernization.  Wakanda keeps itself closed off from the world because the leaders know that they need to preserve culture.  But they are constantly being pulled to share their gifts to make the outside world a better place.  The inside of Wakanda feels like a Star Trek utopia, although we only really spend time with the royal family and not we do not get a good glimpse at the common Wakandan.

Having solidly framed the world, Coogler goes on to tell a very engaging story about leadership and responsibility.  Many have noted that the motivations of the villain are incredibly inteersting.  I have heard some reviewers say that Killmonger is more interesting than T'Challa.  On this point I disagree.  Early on someone tells T'Challa "You are a good man.  And it is hard for a good man to be king."  This, I think, is the heart of understanding his character.  I am always a fan of stories that attempt to make virtue interesting and attractive.  T'Challa is not perfect but he has a good heart and never waivers in his desire to do the right thing.  But making this person a political leader makes things very complicated.  Statecraft often involves secrets and spying.  You can see how an honest man like T'Challa is a bit lost in these waters.  And you can see how he looks to his father so worshipfully, but feels betrayed and disappointed when he learns his father's flaws.

The actors are all great.  Boseman carries the quiet strength and dignity that T'Challa needs without coming off as arrogant or bland.  Jordan is not in enough of the movie.  From the moment he steps on to the screen he exudes charisma.  He is a thugish, evil brute who somehow can garner your sympathy even in the midst of his violence.  Gurira's no-nonsense Okoye brings a great deal of fun as she lets her exacerbation show when in the presence of her inferiors.  Wright might come off as the annoying little sister to some, but I found her to be an energetic shot of youth into the film.  Freeman plays the competent fish-out-of-water in the movie and brings all of his everyman strengths.  And Serkis completely chews the scenery throughout the movie and is deliciously evil.  And all of the actors have great chemistry with each other as the different dynamics bring out different aspects of their personality.

Coogler's visual aesthetic is fun to watch.  There is a particular one-shot action sequences that is dizzying in the best way.  The movie is bold and colorful and is incredibly visually dynamic.  Comparisons to The Lion King may be unavoidable with its idealized African countryside and its thematic connections to fatherhood, revenge, and kingship.  The movie almost feels like a James Bond film, with Shuri as Q and Ross as Felix Leiter.  But it never moves too far from its superhero roots and it gives plenty of satisfying comic book action that had me smiling throughout.  The use of the Wakandan technology is unlike any other science fiction that I have seen, which gives it a unique flavor.

Returning again to the main villain, I found it to be an incredibly bold story choice.  Killmonger gives voice to the tidal anger of racial injustices.  But his social awareness leads him down a path of violence that the movie clearly condemns.  Black Panther celebrates African culture but takes care to take a stand against an ideology that would make any race superior to another.

Black Panther is a solid entry in the MCU that does not disappoint.

image by Yasier72.multan

Monday, February 19, 2018

Film Review: Justice League

Warner Bros. has long been criticized with making their DC Comics movies into serious, somber affairs rather than light-hearted fun films like those found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I think that this over-simplifies the differences, but regardless, it appears that Warner Bros. listened to the criticism and made what I would dub DC's first Marvel movie:  Justice League.

The movie takes place just after the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Our world is morning the loss of the Last Son of Krypton, but a foe from another world is rejoicing.  An alien conquerer Steppenwolf (Ciaron Hinds) has been slowly releasing flying drone monsters known as parademons throughout the world.  These parademons feed off of fear and are looking for items of power known as "Mother Boxes."  Batman (Ben Affleck), has been attempting to analyze this threat since his encounter with Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) at the end of the last film.  He recruits Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to help him assemble a team.  Batman reaches out to the world-weary loner Aquaman (Jason Momao) and adorkable speedster the Flash (Ezra Miller).  Another hero, Cyborb (Ray Fisher) also seeks out the heroes so that they can join forces to stop Steppenwolf from destroying the world.

The plot is a very straightforward, by-the-numbers superhero team fare.  But that doesn't mean that the movie isn't also a good deal of fun.

As always, director Zack Snyder has made a film that is gorgeous to watch.  Even though he left the project early beacause of a family tragedy, replacement director Joss Whedon keeps much of that same aesthetic intact.

You cannot review this movie without addressing this directing shake-up.  It is clearly evident in the movie.  This film was intended to be the capstone of a Zack Snyder DCEU trilogy.  And there are times when you can feel the thematic and tonal ties to Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman.  But then Whedon plays around in this world, but tries to make the film more like his breakout hit The Avengers.  Rather than letting the two styles harmonize completely, it feels like the movie cannot commit to a tone.  You see this most epsecially in Ben Affleck's performance.  His performance in Batman v. Superman is nuanced and powerful, always smoldering with barely-contained rage.  And there are many scenes where this can be seen in Justice League.  But then there are scenes where he comes off as relaxed and aloof like Tony Stark.  I would stake my paycheck that those latter scenes were filmed by Whedon.  Neither performance is bad, mind you.  But it feels a bit inconsistent.

The place where the melding works best, however, is the dialogue.  Especially in the early scenes, you can feel heavy drama and deep questions you would expect from a Snyder movie.  But Whedonesque wit actually compliments the darker tones that are found.  Batman is able to deliver insightful lines like "Superman was more human than I'll ever be."  And the Flash make jokes about Pet Semetary without it feeling out of place.

The biggest drawback of the film is its villain.  Steppenwolf is a character made of sub-par CGI and bland motives.  He is definitely no Loki.

Another challenge the story has that The Avengers did not was that it had to introduce half of its heroes in this film rather than bringing in already established characters.  This causes a lot of early exposition that slows down the first act, but the introductions are handled with care and are actually incredibly entertaining.

And a huge factor in that entertainment are the performances.  Affleck and Gadot are the center of this show and they hold everything together with their power and charisma.  Momoa comes off with effortless cool and manly-recklessness that his machismo comes off as charming rather than cringy.  When he shouts "My man!" during an epic fight, it feels oddly natural and awesome.  Fisher could have played Cyborg as one-note angry.  But he layers his performance as a man trying to reason his way out his unreasonable situation. The actor I was most worried about was Miller as the Flash.  His take on Barry Allen is nothing like the comic book version.  And even though I am a huge comic book nerd, I was okay with this diversion.  Miller functions as the fanboy; he is the stand in for all of us geeks who imagine what it might be like fight along side these heroes.  His beta-male point-of-view offers a wonderful foil to the more courageous members of the League.  And he serves as the jester of the group, cracking wise as he runs to and away from danger.  He probably has the best lines of the whole movie.

Also returning are Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth.  Adams role is smaller than in previous DCEU films, but she provides the emotional tether to the loss of Superman (Henry Cavill).  And Irons is once again perfect as the dry-witted butler.

One of the best things about movies like this is that it showcases the essential truths about heroism: courage and self-sacrifice.  The heroes have to face their fears and make choices that put the needs of others before themselves.  These very Christological ideals are continually explored as well the ideas of friendship and trust.

But the best part about the movie is that the entire thing is fun.

I enjoyed the entire film from start to finish.  There are several plot points that I will not discuss here for fear of spoilers (though by this point most of them are probably known).  The movie had lots of comic book moments that should satisfy most avid fans.  It also has one of my favorite comic book movie moments off all time.  I will not spoil the whole thing, but it involves the Flash as he is running with determination.  And then he sees something that terrifyies him beyond words.  In the theater I laughed so hard and the entire audince roared.  Whenever I think of this movie, this is the first scene I imagine.

This movie doesn't reach the emotional or thematic heights as Snyder's last two films.  Justice League seeks to simply be a fun action/adventure.  And on that level it soars up, up, and away.

image by Yasier72.multan

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sunday Best: Top 25 Super Hero Movies of All Time #4 - Man of Steel

My appreciation of this movie only grows with time.

I know that this movie has many detractors.  The chief criticism I hear is that Superman should be bright and fun, not serious and dark.  I can appreciate this point of view, but I also think that this misses much of the movie's point.

Since Superman's introduction into popular culture, the world has descended deeper into modernism and nihilism.  Superman is meant to be a symbol of hope to stand above and against the raging cynicism.  But Zack Snyder is showing us in Man of Steel how someone raised in this morally ambiguous culture can rise up.  That isn't to say that there wasn't a good deal of pessimism when the original movies were introduced.  But as time goes on, it is Superman's innate goodness, not his Kryptonian origins, that make him seem more and more alien to the human race.

Watch how Snyder uses the visuals to sell the grounded reality of the movie.  His constant use of hand-held cameras and very hard lighting take away the glossy, artificial feel that many of these films have. 

Snyder's Superman is in many ways the Christ-figure.  But it is not meant to be a mere allegory.  The analogy is not perfect.  Instead, this Superman is as fallen as any of us.  This movie (and its sequel) are about the heroes becoming who they are, along with all of the errors along the way.  That is why this movie is not called "Superman," because while he was always a "Man of Steel" he has not yet truly become Superman.

From my original review:

Man of Steel is the retelling of the Superman origin.  Because we've seen this before in previous films, some of the story beats feel familiar.  But Zack Snyder, unlike Bryan Singer [director of the lackluster Superman Returns], makes a complete break from the Richard Donner aesthetic.  Everything looks new and different.  This version of Superman's father, Jor-El (played by the wonderfully understated Russell Crowe) is a dynamic man of action and conscience, unlike the stiff, stoic Brando version.  He is at odds with his Kryptonian culture and its leaders, particularly General Zod (Michael Shannon).  But in the midst of the chaos, Jor-El steals something called "the codex" and places it with his son Kal in his rocket to Earth.

The first half of the movie is very similar to the structure of Batman Begins, which is no surprise since it was written by the same man, David S. Goyer.  In both films, the hero is seen wandering, trying to find himself and his place in this world.  Clark (Henry Cavill) travels from one odd job to the next encountering what humanity has to offer (often not very nice).  All the while he reflects on his time growing up in Smallville, being raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). His journey eventually takes him to a government research station in the north where they are investigating an extra-terrestrial object.  This also happens to be at the same time that investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) comes snooping in to get the real scoop.  Needless to say, this sets off a series of events that bring Clark to the attention of the world as a hero and creates a confrontation with Zod and his fellow insurgents who survived Krypton's explosion.


Man of Steel is a true spectacle.  This is where Snyder is the strongest.  I spent much of the movie drinking in the visuals.  When Zod and Superman first exchange blows, I got my money's worth from the film.  I remember watching The Matrix Revolutions fight between Neo and Smith thinking that this would be cool if it was between Superman and Zod.  Well, that fight has nothing on the climatic battle in Man of Steel.  If you just want to see spectacular scenes of super people punching each other, this movie rocks.  In the IMAX, you could feel each punch resonate through your chest.

I loved the performances in this film.  Cavill has to carry a lot of this film with his looks.  When Superman first appears, the American government believe he is a threat.  What I noticed was that he had to use his body to convey strength and power, but his face always displayed a kind of gentleness to elicit trust.  This kinesthetic schizophrenia is not easy to pull off.  That is not to say he constantly has an "aw-shucks" face.  He brings about amazing levels of intensity in the action sequences. 

And, to my mind, Amy Adams is the best Lois Lane I have seen on screen.  This Lois is not, naive or gullible.  She is brave, smart, and conscientious.  Because of this, Man of Steel throws out the old ways her relationship to Superman has been defined and forges a new path. 

But the two best performances come from Michael Shannon and Kevin Costner.  Shannon's Zod could be dismissed as over-the-top bordering on cartoonish, except for his complete commitment to the character with a fiery intensity that never abates.  When he shouts "I WILL FIND HIM," it feels like the seething anger under his mind finally explodes.  Someone pointed out the me that he has a stare of constant malice similar to Malcolm McDowell's in A Clockwork Orange.  And unlike Terrence Stamps' Zod, Shannon's is oriented solely for the good of Kryptonian society. 

Costner, though, is the emotional heart of the movie.  In the few scenes he is in he breaks the heart.  Not since Viggo Mortenson's performance in The Road have I seen such a worn down, burdened father on screen.  He knows, like all fathers, that his words and actions will shape his child's soul.  But he also knows that because Clark is a god among men, those choices will have resonances to the entire world.  He looks both confident and lost.  He conveys the sureness of a father, but underneath his eyes and in the quiver of his voice, you hear his fear at making the wrong choice.  After Clark displays his power to save some people, Jonathan scolds him.  When asked by Clark if he should have just let them die, Jonathan responds "Maybe."  This could have been perceived as a a cold calculation.  But Costner shows, very subtly, how much that horrible answer weighs on him and what it implies.

Thematically, the movie is very rich.  Much has been made of the Christian imagery throughout the film, and it is there in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  As a devout Catholic, I LOVE the fact that before making a life-changing decision, Clark goes to Church and seeks the advice of priest.  And the priest is not supernaturally wise or specially, but he gives the best advice he can in a very human way that resonates through the rest of the film.  And I also got a little thrill to see that in a scene where some school bullies try to goad Clark into a fight, that he is reading the complete works of Plato!  When was the last time you so Plato in a summer blockbuster?  The movie also deals with issues of nature vs. nurture, free-will vs. determinism, fear vs. trust, etc. 

Hans Zimmer's score is also fantastic.  Nothing can touch the iconic John Williams work, but Zimmer makes the wise decision to follow none of the Williams' musical motifs and forges a path of his own.  It is the best score I've heard all year, alternately sad and tender and then big and bellicose. 


Man of Steel stands above most of the other superhero films because it delivers emboldening themes and ideas while also giving us one of the most visually thrilling superhero spectacles.  

That is why it is the #4 superhero film of all time.

Only 3 left.

Can you guess what they are? And in what order?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Film Flash: Black Panther

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Was worried movie was over-hyped.  It wasn't.  Excellent film.  Superhero/Lion King/James Bond hybrid.

image by Yasir72.multan

Monday, February 12, 2018

Trailer Time: Solo - A Star Wars Story

I have a bad feeling about this.

Visually, the movie looks very interesting, but that isn't really the big selling point.  This isn't Rogue One where we will be introduced to new characters with blank slates.  We are about to re-encounter one of the most iconic characters in movie history.

I would be so much more excited for this film if it wasn't for Alden Ehrenreich as Han.  I am not one of those people that says you cannot replace iconic actors.  One of the best things about the prequels was Ewan McGregor's performance as Obi-Wan.  He both paid tribute to Alec Guinness and added something of his own.  I am not saying Ehrenreich can't do that, but in the scant few seconds we see him, I didn't feel anything regarding excitement.  Contrast that to seeing Lando on screen.  Glover has a great charisma and even for only a second, I imagined how great he would be in the role.

I hope I am wrong, but I am not optimistic about this film.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sunday Best: Super-Hero Movies of All Time #5 - The Avengers


Cinematic universes are all the rage now.

But we have to remember that before they were the exception, not the rule.

Marvel set off on a grand experiment:  Take 4 heroes who are the stars of their own franchises and put them together in one team movie.

There were so many risk factors at play.

First, if one of the setup movies was not a hit, it could derail the whole process.  In other words, if one went down, they all would go down.  You can see this in the slow build following the lukewarm reception of The Incredible Hulk after Iron Man

Second, you have a question of balance.  How can you build and maintain an individual franchise with your character as the main hero if they play second-fiddle to someone else in your group movie?  If Iron Man simply dominates Captain America, then how are we supposed to take Cap as seriously as the leader of his own series.  If you mess up the group film, it could crash your multi-franchise plan.

Finally, you have the question of scale.  If the characters alone fight world-ending threats, the stakes for the group work must be raised.  The visual spectacle must also be brought to its highest level.  People would expect a level of quality that must surpass what had come before, not simply maintain to the level of the others.

And Marvel delivered with The Avengers

Joss Whedon gets the lion's share of the credit and rightly so.  Marvel took a big chance on a director who had only helmed one other feature film, Serenity,  that was loved by critics and fans, but bombed at the box office.  And Marvel decided to put all of their eggs into his basket.  Again, I think that people underappreciated what an enormous risk this was.  In retrospect it seems obvious, but it was in no way a secure gamble.

But Whedon understood each of the characters, what gave them a unique voice/perspective, and understood how they brought something interesting and unique to the narrative.  Yes, people remember Tony's wise cracks (which are some of the best bits in any Marvel movie), but everyone brings something to the table.  Black Widow is a regular human among titans, and yet she is the one who is able to trick Loki into revealing his plan.  Thor is the most alien of the team and it is revealed that it is his appearance in our world that set off the other-worldly arms race.  Whedon had a huge advantage in that each of these characters had their origin story already told, so he could just dive right in to the narrative.

Whedon made each of the characters shine.  A trap many writers fall into is to have the characters all sound like the writer.  Whedon allows the characters to be the characters.  As a devout Catholic, I have always appreciated that Whedon had Cap mention his faith in God.  When asked about why he did this, Whedon responded, "I don't believe in God, but Steve does."  This imaginative power allows the characters to feel more real and three-dimensional.  This also allows for interesting combinations and conflicts.

Speaking of conflicts, Tom Hiddleston as Loki is one of the greatest comic book villains.  He had a good turn in his first outing in Thor, but he really let his dark charisma shine in The Avengers.  Whedon makes the threat of his power real, but even more so the threat of his mind.  Like Hannibal Lector behind his cell doors, we are constantly under threat from Loki's machinations.  His charm is a sharpened dagger waiting to stab.  And yet we love to watch him.  He is completely fascinating even when he does things like murder characters we love. 

This brings us to Clark Gregg as Coulson.  Up until this point, he had been the everyman of the MCU.  He was the most human of all the characters we encountered.  His death was such a shock, one that drew audible gasps when I saw it at the premiere, because we had become used to him as part of the fabric of this cinematic universe.  And he was one of us, one of the ones the heroes were supposed to protect.  And they failed.  This failure pushed the entire rest of the story to a sense of urgency.  The heroes could save Coulson.  They avenged him.

Returning to the concept of spectacle, Whedon made the most watchable Marvel film.  The Battle of New York is long and many films have made the mistake of copying its length but not its depth.  Whedon wove a tapestry of action that constantly thrills.  The single-take shot following the heroes all throughout the city creates an amazing sense of scale, teamwork, and dynamism as the heroes do their best against the hordes.  There is a valid criticism that the Chitauri lack depth.  But by the time you get to this part of the story, the audience is waiting for the heroes to cut loose.  Besides Loki's charisma makes up for much of this.

Visually there are so many iconic moments, the 360 shot of the heroes, Cap giving out the instructions,  Iron Man using Cap's shield to reflect his blasts, Thor dropping the hammer on the shield, Hulk punching the Chitauri monster, Hulk punching Thor, Hulk smashing Loki... this are visual moments that stay with you.

Thematically, the movie resonates so well because it touches on the archetype of the hero: someone who will put others before themselves.  One of the reasons that Iron Man is placed front and center of this film is that he is the one with the strongest character arc.  This is the movie where Tony goes from being super to hero.  He makes the choice to save all of New York immediately and without complaint he flies into the darkness to save those in the light. 

And because of the success of The Avengers, the MCU is now the gold standard of movie franchises.  Now instead of worrying about one bomb derailing everything, you have the studio taking chances on odder properties like Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange.  And these movies are all hits primarily because Marvel has established and solidified their brand with Avengers.

The movie is also at root, just a good deal of fun.  To this day, I still quote from it.  It is a bright, bold, spectacle that has wit and heart.

And for that reason it is the #5 Super-Hero film of all time.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Film Flash: Game Night

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Excellently directed violent, vulgar comedy.  A fun night out.  Bateman, McAdams, and Plemons are great.

image by Yasir72.multan

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sunday Best: Super-Hero Movies of All Time #6 - Guardians of the Galaxy

This was supposed to be Marvel's first bomb.

Writer/director James Gunn had only made movies with smaller budgets.  I had seen one of them: Super.  And it was awful.  I mean it was a piece of violent, nihilist dreck.

The trailers were just terrible.  The first teaser looked like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.  The movie had no big stars and it did not tie into most of the Marvel Universe.

Marvel opened it in August, which is usually the death slot of summer releases.  And I am convinced that Marvel was so worried about handing over so much creative control to Gunn that they tried to micromanage Edgar Wright on Ant-Man, which is why he bolted from that project.

I walked in to that movie theater only because it was a Marvel movie.

The opening scene was more emotional than I was expecting, but nothing life-shattering.

But then Chris Pratt showed up.

And he put on that walkman and started dancing around.  Until we had that insane openning title shot.  You know the one: the ridiculously large title with the teeny-tiny Peter Quill dancing in the corner.

And at that moment, the movie owned me.

You need to understand that movies are a kind of magic.  The job of a movie is to cast a spell on you that transports you to another world.  And in that moment I was transported.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't just for that single moment alone.  There were many times along the way that the spell could have been broken.  And it should have been.  Yondu the space redneck should have been beyond dumb.  A racoon and talking tree should not have had any depth.  The tongue-in-cheek humor should have undercut all of the dramatic tension.

But it didn't.

Guardians of the Galaxy  is that rare movie that skirts so close to the line of awfulness that it makes it good.  The movie almost dares you to hate it before winning you over with its amazing charm.

Part of the movie's strengths is that Gunn didn't set out to make a traditional Marvel movie.  He was making a space epic like Star Wars or The Last Starfighter.  To that end, Gunn was allowed to play in his corner of the sandbox free from too much intervention.

And Gunn fully embraced the weirdness of his concept.  As nervous as Marvel was, I have to hand it to them that they let Gunn completely execute his vision.  Rather than being a bland, forgettable space opera (e.g. Jupiter Ascending, Valerian), Guardians stood out from everything else around it.   This can be seen in its odd visual design that make it pop out from anything else in the genre.

This is the movie that made Chris Pratt a star, and rightly so.  His charisma is off the charts with his goofy heroism.  And despite the clownish facade, Pratt was able to show is seething dramatic side.  Look at the intensity with which he tells the story of Footloose, with a wink in his eye, but deadly seriousness at the same time.

The chemistry with the other cast members is also fantastic.  They attract and repel each other at the same time, which makes for some fantastic character moments.  The script has some of the funniest lines from any comic book film.  I always take it as a good sign when you leave the theater quoting the characters you just watched.

But as funny as the movie is, I think people forget just how exciting Guardians of the Galaxy is.  I remember flipping stations and the prison escape was on.  Even though I had seen it dozens of times, I was glued to the TV.  The movie is a big spectacle, but it isn't empty explosions and noise.  And it is emotional.  The two scenes with Peter's mother are powerful but so is that beautiful moment where Groot wipes away Rocket's tear and simply says, "We are Groot."   Those three words pack more of an emotional wallop than whole monologues from other movies.

Much has been noted about the soundtrack.  Gunn did not simply add classic pop songs in for color.  This movie integrates the music in a way I have seen in few films like American Graffiti.  It highlights just the right emotion or ironic flavor that the scene needs.  And it should not be overlooked how catchy those classic hits are and how they linger with you long after the movie is done. What often gets overlooked is Tyler Bates epic score.  But it is bold and heroic. 

It is true that the villain is a one-note despot.  But this leads to one of the greatest villain showdowns since the Ghostbusters confronted Gozer:  the dance off!

Again, this moment should have taken the entire story off the rails.  It should have been a cringe-fest of cheesiness.  But in the hands of Pratt and Gunn, it turns in to a moment that converges the plot and character into a sharpened point.  Ronan is too powerful.  Quill cannot stop him, cannot reason with him, cannot bargain with him.

So Star Lord dances.

And it is a thing of beauty.

Iron Man, Captain America, or even Spider-Man could not have pulled that off.  Only Peter Quill and the Guardians of the Galaxy could have given us a unique movie moment like that.

For that and all of the other wonderfulness, Guardians of the Galaxy is the 6th greatest Super-Hero movie of all time.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dumbledore's Closet

Picture by Karen Roe via WikiMedia Commons

Albus Dumbledore is gay.

That is a revelation that was given by author JK Rowling after her famous book series had ended.  It came as a shock to many readers of the children's books and added another layer to this important character.  But the series was over and there was nothing in the stories that explicitly mentioned the head-master's orientation.

But now there are new stories coming out.  The sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be coming out soon.  And this time we will see Dumbledore as a young man helping in the war against his old companion Grindelwald.

Recently, director David Yates was asked if the movie would be exploring Dumbledore's sexuality at all in this story.  His response was:

“Not explicitly,” Yates replied when asked if the film makes it clear that Dumbledore is gay. “But I think all the fans are aware of that. He had a very intense relationship with Grindelwald when they were young men. They fell in love with each other’s ideas, and ideology and each other.”

This has led to a number of people online complaining that Dumbledore is having to remain in the closet.  And on websites like io9, the frustration is palpable.

I think before anything else is said, it is important to understand the frustration, justified or not.

Dr. Peter Kreeft once spoke about an encounter he had with a gay man.  The gay man listened to Kreeft's talk on how the Church's teachings about homosexuality was clear and true.  Kreeft said that anything which promotes a homosexual lifestyle was wrong and should be discouraged.  But he also said that all gay people must be treated with love and respect and dignity.

The gay man asked Kreeft posed to him this thought experiment:  imagine if someone told the professor that any public expression of his faith (wearing a cross, going to mass, etc) was immoral and should be discouraged, but that despite his faith being shunned that he should still be treated with dignity.  The gay man said that if that feels like a contradiction, then that is how it felt for him to be told that he had dignity but any expression of his homosexuality was a sin.

I bring this up because sometimes I think we react to things we see in the popular culture without first giving thought to all points of view.  I know that I am certainly guilty of this at time, but it is something about which we should be vigilant.

The frustration of many homosexuals is that they do not see anything immoral with their lifestyle, so the suppression of their expression puts them back in the metaphorical closet.  What they desire is to see homosexuality to be as commonly accepted as heterosexuality in the culture.  Anything that does not push this agenda forward is seen as backwards-thinking.

But I think that this is wrong hill to die on.

Dumbledore is gay.  He is gay in the Harry Potter books.  He is gay in the upcoming movie.  The director is not denying his orientation.

One of author JK Rowling's strengths as a writer was allowing a rich unseen backstory inform the present actions of her characters.  Did you know that Professor McGonagall lives a celibate life because she had an affair once with a muggle that ended badly?  That is her backstory but it never comes up in the Harry Potter books.  And yet you can see much of her personality shaped by events like these.

Simply because something is not explored specifically in a story does not mean that it isn't important or that it is non-existent.

As I wrote when Rowling first revealed Dumbledore's orientation, I find it to be an interesting insight into his character.  There is a loneliness to Dumbledore that pervades a lot of his personality, and this facet of who he is made me appreciate him more.  I found nothing objectionable about this revelation as a Catholic.  We believe that all people must be treated with dignity, as Dr. Kreeft said.  And we call Catholic homosexuals to live out the call of celibacy, as Dumbledore apparently did during the entire Harry Potter series.

But the main reason I think that it is a mistake to be outraged by this is that it is a disservice to the character.  When it comes to the writing of gay characters, one of the problems I find is that the writers define the character by their orientation.  In other words, the writer decides to write a "gay character."  But that already puts a label on this character and boxes them in.  A good character should feel three-dimensional and multi-faceted.

Dumbledore is a fascinating character.  He is at times whimsical and at others woebegone.  He has the weight of the world on his shoulders and yet often presents himself as not having a care in the world.  He engaged in a war with evil that had him do terrible things and yet he embraced love as the highest of all ideals.

Part of Dumbledore's mystique was that there was so much that went on just beneath the surface.  We knew there were depths that we never could or would see.  Dumbledore was not a character who let people behind the curtain too often.  It's one of the reasons Harry has a such a contentious relationship with Dumbledore's memory in the final book.

But it is a disservice to the character reduce his person to his orientation or as the io9 headline says, "Let Dumbledore Be Gay."

Instead, Dumbledore's gayness is just one part of who he is.  There are so many things that could be explored in depth in the upcoming movie.  The fact that his homosexuality is not going to be one of them simply reminds us that Dumbledore was someone who had a deep, complex story that he held on to so privately.  But that story informs the rich character that he is.

So instead of saying, "Let Dumbledore Be Gay," we should clearly say, "Let Dumbledore Be Dumbledore."