Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Release: Friday, December 14, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Phil Lord; Rodney Rothman

Directed by: Bob Persichetti; Peter Ramsey; Rodney Rothman

A Review from the Perspective of a Spider-Newb

A cornucopia of visual delights that rivals the best of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, two of the giants in the world of animation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has taken Sony Pictures Animation to a whole new level. The combination of painstakingly hand-drawn and slick computer-generated imagery is something you can’t help but marvel at. All of the little stylistic flares — splitting the screen into panels, the employment of thought bubbles and of lightning bolts indicating a Spidey sense tingling, the minutiae of lighting textures — work in concert to make the viewer feel like they have “walked right into a comic book.” And then of course there’s a sense of timeliness. The recent passing of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee adds poignancy to what is already clearly an ode to a legacy. The rich detail and emotional resonance makes Into the Spider-Verse the cinematic equivalent of a mother’s handwoven quilt.

I’ll say it once and I’ll probably say it several more times before we’re done here: I can’t get over how good this movie looks. The visual language contributes so much to the film’s energetic personality and individuality. Yet what’s maybe most surprising about Into the Spider-Verse is how fresh and engaging this yet-again origins story feels. Its self-aware and occasionally self-deprecatory humor, courtesy of Phil Lord — the brilliantly quick-witted writer/producer of high-octane adventures such as The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street — helped me buy back in. This is only like the 167th time we have seen an ordinary kid get bitten by a special spider but only the first in which we have been able to laugh along with those involved at how many big-screen iterations of the web-slinger there have been in recent years. More to the point, this is the first time we have seen someone other than the iconically average Peter Parker become Spider-Man.

Yes, of all those versions that have preceded it Into the Spider-Verse is the most inclusive one yet. The film offers seven Spideys for the price of one and while comics readers will be getting the most value from their dollar as they pluck out all the myriad Easter eggs hidden inside, the story graciously makes room for Spider-Newbs, taking the idea of an ordinary individual gaining unusual abilities and extrapolating that to the general populace. That any one of us holds the potential to become Spider-Man is a conceit juicy with possibility. It also seems a logistical nightmare from a writing standpoint. How will all these characters coexist within one story? Is it even one story? How many and which villains do we go with? How many Mary Janes? (Sorry for the spoiler, but there can only ever be one of those.)

In bringing this ambitious project to life, three different filmmakers are charged with directing, with Peter Ramsey handling the action sequences, Rodney Rothman overseeing the comedic aspects, and Bob Persichetti supplying what Lord describes as the “poetry” of the story. Indeed this is a real team effort, with the writers (Lord, alongside Rothman and a whole host of credited character developers) fixating upon the emotional maturation of a new Spidey-in-the-making, one Miles Morales (Dope‘s very own Shameik Moore), a New York kid of Afro-Puerto Rican descent trying his best to please his cop dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and mom, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse. He attends a private boarding school where his parents hope he will aim for great heights. Oh, the irony. He has a close friend in his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) who encourages Miles to keep pursuing his artistic passions, frequently taking him to a subway station where he graffitis beautiful expressions onto the otherwise lifeless walls.

When a ridiculously rotund baddie named Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), attempts to use a particle accelerator to access alternate dimensions for personal reasons that won’t be revealed here, beings from those other worlds are inadvertently thrust into ours. This opens up a quasi-anthological narrative that brings in different Spider-People to inform the central conflict — Miles’ inability to own his newfound . . . well, abilities. Multiple character arcs are provided along the way, each different Spider-Person explaining how they won the mutated-genetics lottery, all while Miles’ internal struggle — that oft-referenced grappling with power and responsibility — remains front-and-center. More impressive is the way all of it unfolds at a breakneck pace without ever becoming convoluted and difficult to keep up with.

What really perpetuates the flow of the narrative is this revolving door of different characters. There is always something new to latch on to, like swinging through the corridors of Manhattan from building to building. Chris Pine is in as the one-and-only Peter Parker, and while the role is small he does something we haven’t seen Peter do in any of the live-action adaptations. Jake Johnson’s Peter B. Parker, by contrast, is an over-the-hill, jaded crime fighter whose sweatpants-and-protruding-gut look suggests he isn’t overly concerned with image these days. He is perfectly charming in all of his 9-5 day job blasé. Then we have Hailee Steinfeld taking up the mantle of Gwen Stacy and while her trust issues are a cliché the actress/singer makes her reservations not only believable but emotionally satisfying when it comes to the main protagonist’s development.

From there it gets a little more obscure, with SNL’s John Mulaney lending his voice to Spider-Ham/Peter Porker (and here is a perfect example of my ignorance; how dare I limit my imagination of what Spider-Man can be to just human beings) while Nicolas Cage, of all people, becomes Spider-Man Noir. Last and most definitely least interesting (again, to me) is Kimiko Glenn’s Peni Parker, a Japanese incarnation who apparently made her Marvel Comics début only a few years ago in Edge of Spider-Verse #5 (2014). She’s got some weird robot-machine thing named SP//dr with which she telepathically communicates and uses to properly engage with the enemy — a device that also apparently links her to the ominous OsCorp.

There are familiar faces and characters scattered throughout as well. The older, more cynical Spider-Man’s Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) has a pretty important part to play as the many Spideys set about trying to find a way back to their own worlds while Miles tries ever more desperately to prevent Kingpin from destroying New York and, on a more personal level, help his father overcome his anti-Spidey bias. Secondary villains appear in the form of Doc Ock/Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hann adding a female twist on Alfred Molina’s interpretation from Spider-Man 2), and Prowler, whose unmasked identity is best left masked in writing.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is sure to have long legs at the box office, and it deserves them. Whether this is the epitome of what comic book movies should feel like and be about is something that can be debated until the cows come home. For this outsider, this is just one of the most consistently enjoyable and immersive experiences I have had in 2018 and in a year in which I have had to absorb the blows of Infinity War, endure the cold loneliness of being First Man and try to survive the completely unknown in (my personal favorite) Annihilation, that is some accomplishment.

“I think, therefore I am . . . Spider-Man?”

Recommendation: Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, a heartbreaking plot-twist and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. I don’t know if this is literally “the best Spider-Man movie ever made,” but I am fairly confident it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. Your move, Marvel.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “That’s all it is Miles, a leap of faith.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

 

#OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

oscars-snafu

Steve Harvey reaching out to Warren Beatty after he was involved in what has got to be the most embarrassing SNAFU in Oscars history — and possibly of the actor’s career — strikes me as humorous for some reason. I know it isn’t funny, but what if there really is some support group for this sort of thing? Victims of Award Ceremony Gaffes Anonymous, does that exist?

Look, I’m not here to point fingers and perpetuate the blame game because, well, I feel as though a sufficient pall has been cast over Barry Jenkins’ legitimate victory and Jimmy Kimmel’s first Oscars hosting gig. Poor guy. It’s not like he was the greatest host ever — the highlight of his night is without a doubt his manipulating the pit orchestra in order to rush Matt Damon off stage as he was presenting, which was amusing but not good enough to make me stop missing Billy Crystal.

But Kimmel’s night was going really well and for it to end in such a bizarre and awkward way, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. Or just assume that M. Night Shyamalan had played a part. And we all know that while it was probably the decent thing to do to try and divert the awkwardness away from the presenters (does anyone know what country Faye Dunaway is now living in by the way?) and towards himself, we also know this was not his fault. A scheme like this would be too complex for Jimmy Kimmel to mastermind, anyway. Besides, I don’t feel bad for the talk show host in the way I feel bad for La La Land.

ryan-gosling-snubbedI suppose the good that came out of this “custody battle” — besides the fact that one of the most deserving films in recent memory actually took home top honors — was that we got to know a little bit more about La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. It’s almost unreasonable how composed he was. How gracious in defeat he was. How sincerely his congratulations were offered to his competitors. I think there’s something we can all learn from the way he (and others) handled their situation.

I rated the two films differently but truth be told, and given everything that happened on Sunday, I think I would have been alright if the honor were shared between both films. That’s where the Academy really screwed things up. (Okay, I guess I am going to have to do a little scapegoating here.) Sure, PwC has taken the heat and rightfully so, but even if there were not enough trophies to go around on stage, I don’t know how you can allow for something like this to happen.

And it’s not like ties haven’t happened before, because they have. Six times actually. Six times a producer or director or cast member was spared the humiliation of being cut-off mid-acceptance speech because they hadn’t, in fact, any right to be making it. Of course, the way the 89th Academy Awards ended feels like a first. This wasn’t an example of indecision or voter fraud. This was an unprecedented production fiasco that unfolded in real time. To further troll the Academy and PwC, I’m really not sure if there could have been any protocol for this. And I really doubt there will be a ‘next time,’ so there probably never will be.

With the elephant in the room having been addressed, allow me to breakdown the categories that I featured in my preview post:

Best Picture (Winner: Moonlight) 

What I predicted: La La Land

If I had it my way: Moonlight

Well, the cast and crew of La La Land certainly went skipping up on stage because for a fleeting moment, as I had predicted, life for them was but a dream. But oh man, how fleeting that feeling was . . .

On the bright side, Moonlight becomes just the second LGBTQ-related film ever, behind Midnight Cowboy in 1970, to win Best Picture. And it is the first time in Oscars history a film with an all-black cast has won the award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Directing (Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land)

What I predicted: Damien Chazelle

If I had it my way: Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special

No real surprise here. The art that lives within the 32-year-old director is undoubtedly unique and profound. For him to go from directing a film like Whiplash to La La Land in the span of three years is, well, the guys at Consequence of Sound said it best: it’s just baffling.

Actor in a Leading Role (Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea)

What I predicted: Casey Affleck

If I had it my way: Casey Affleck

Amazing. To go from being the architect of your own potential destruction to Oscar-winner in the span of a few months is about as crazy as #EnvelopeGate. When a sexual harassment scandal reared its ugly head once again in the lead-up the Oscars, it seemed Ben Affleck’s younger, smaller and generally awkward brother had the odds stacked against him. Not to trivialize the troubling story that has been following the actor for some time, but his work in Manchester By the Sea deserved the win. It is almost enough to make us forget that hey, Oscar winners ain’t saints. I said ‘almost.’

Actress in a Leading Role (Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land)

What I predicted: Emma Stone

If I had it my way: Amy Adams, Arrival

Emma Stone, you need not worry if I’m doubting the legitimacy of your win. Your work in the movie speaks for itself. Your ‘Audition’ scene took my breath away, and I never quite got it back. I’m so glad Leo didn’t have any trouble with his presentation, because the Oscar absolutely went to the right person this year. Emma Stone has further cemented herself as one of the most meteoric stars of her generation. Jennifer Lawrence, watch your back.

Actor in a Supporting Role (Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight)

What I predicted: Mahershala Ali

If I had it my way: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

I love that in an era where Muslims are feeling more and more persecuted and marginalized in this country, one has just taken home Oscar gold. It feels something close to poetic justice, even if other artists this year have indeed suffered the effects of an unprecedented travel ban. I was introduced to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Remy Danton in Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards. I was impressed right away. In Moonlight, his turn as an empathetic drug dealer who exerts major influence on the young Chiron early in the narrative, is enough to break your heart. But in ways you might not expect. It’s a stunning supporting turn, and a big part of the reason I thought Moonlight was able to reach some other psychic level that La La Land just couldn’t.

stinkeye

Actress in a Supporting Role (Winner: Viola Davis, Fences)

What I predicted: Viola Davis

If I had it my way: Viola Davis

Viola Davis was one of the only true locks for the evening, the other being the winner of Best Documentary Feature (congratulations to Ezra Edelman and O.J.: Made in America for a well-deserved but, yes, very inevitable win). So while I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Davis won, I was nonetheless psyched for the woman. The Oscar win identifies her as the first black actress to complete the Triple Crown of Acting. She has officially taken home an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award for her scintillating work as beleaguered housewife Rose Maxson.

Animated Feature (Winner: Zootopia

What I predicted: Zootopia

If I had it my way: Moana

Blah. Zootopia was good I guess, but this is becoming one of those movies where, the more I hear about it, the more I’m feeling disdain for it. Studio animations have this unprecedented burden of becoming message movies these days, so I guess that’s what the Academy was looking for this year. How many heavy, controversial issues can you jam into one colorful little narrative? That’s the competition. Me, personally? I would have taken anything over the contrived kumbaya of this Disney “classic.” Even The Red Turtle, whatever the hell that is.

Cinematography (Winner: Linus Sandgren, La La Land)

What I predicted: Linus Sandgren

If I had it my way: Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

So you could look at the Best Picture fiasco two different ways. You could feel terrible that La La Land lost in the manner that they did, or you could look at them as being a production that simply missed out on lucky #7. Yeah, they were involved in one of the most egregious mix-ups in an event of this magnitude but they also walked away with SIX OTHER TROPHIES. Inarguably one of the categories they absolutely had in the bag was this one. Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture Los Angeles in a classically romantic, old-fashioned way while reminding the viewer that they are experiencing events in the present tense is truly astonishing. La La Land is a technicolor dream sequence executed to perfection. The iconic Griffith Observatory has rarely looked so good before.

Costume Design (Winner: Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)

What I predicted: Colleen Atwood

If I had it my way: Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed

For a film that I actually never bothered to see I was really pleased with the final result. Though I really didn’t see any of the other nominees challenging the fantastic (sorry) and ornate wardrobe drummed up by the costume designer of such classics as The Silence of the Lambs and Edward Scissorhands.

Production Design (Winner: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land)

What I predicted: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

If I had it my way: Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte, Arrival

I conclude my wrap-up with another fairly predictable result and La La Land‘s first Oscar win of the night. I could make the case for Arrival‘s ability to craft iconic imagery out of simpler elements being more impressive than what the Wascos (a husband-and-wife duo who worked on such films as Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction) were able to achieve. After all, the latter were afforded the unique and historic architecture and landscape of metropolitan L.A., while Arrival‘s production design team were tasked with making the rural pastures of Montana seem eerie. But, call it what it is: La La Land is a gorgeously rendered production whose heart and soul is owed to more than just the infectious lead performances and a few jazz numbers.


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Hidden Figures

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Release: Friday, January 6, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi; Allison Shroeder 

Directed by: Theodore Melfi

‘We go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

Former President John F. Kennedy’s speech became a staple of American history the moment those words were uttered. The pep talk was designed to reshape public perception of where the country was headed in terms of its relationship with the Soviets, who in October of 1957 became the first to successfully launch an un-manned satellite into orbit. The above excerpt, taken by itself, has accumulated such weight over the years we recall the event more for the ethos and sense of national pride his words evoked rather than the place in which they were uttered (Rice University football stadium in Houston, Texas, incidentally).

Theodore Melfi’s Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures is nothing if not a potent reminder of the kinds of details that have been buried in the avalanche of time, how our understanding of history is often informed by supposition and omission, not necessarily what actually happened. Melfi’s historical drama tells of the accomplishments of three extraordinary African-American women who worked at Langley Research Center, a Virginia-based division of NASA, and how their gifted intellects and willingness to persevere helped galvanize a nation amidst the chaos of the Space Race.

Amazingly, their stories have never been shared — until now (okay, excluding the non-fiction book upon which this is based). Hidden Figures is set in 1961 and traces the trajectories of mathematicians Katherine Johnson (née Goble), played by Taraji P. Henson and Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar nominee Octavia Spencer), as well as aspiring engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Each journey is an inspiration, whether it’s Johnson becoming the first African-American to work in the elite Space Task Group, Vaughan’s promotion to supervisor after taking significant strides in adapting to a rapidly changing technological environment, or Jackson’s acceptance into a traditionally all-white school to obtain her engineering degree.

What develops is a crowd-pleasing dramatization whose hagiographic tendencies are frequently pardoned because the whole thing is just so darn watchable, even when it’s hard to watch. The trio of actresses could not be more winning in their performances and hey, even that guy from The Big Bang Theory is pretty good as the archetypal petulant-child-as-immediate-superior. Kevin Costner tags along as Al Harrison, the director of the Space Task Group whose neck the American government is breathing down as they work to stay competitive with the Russians.

Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s writing paces the events so that the story steadily absorbs and the environments feel real and lived-in. Hidden Figures is brought to life through an exquisite combination of costuming and production design. The actors look the part even though accents aren’t very smooth and the dialogue tends to be clunky. Even still, when the film begins we find ourselves immediately transported. We are in the ’60s, marching along with these pioneers ever closer to that famed Kennedy speech, a speech that takes on new significance as the movie concludes.

Hidden Figures never amounts to the kind of confronting hyper-realism recent years have almost conditioned us to expect out of race-related historical dramas. The film’s complaisant tone doesn’t necessarily help to distinguish the product, yet Melfi’s treatment is an appropriately dignified and emotional account of three pivotal figures in the history of the space program. While a few details are left to be nitpicked, the film’s convictions shall go uncontested.

kevin-costner-in-hidden-figures

4-0Recommendation: Tonally familiar but not offensively so. Loaded with charismatic and touching performances and bolstered by a fascinating and incredible true story, the emotional engine driving Hidden Figures to its expected conclusion ultimately makes this an easy (and strong) recommendation. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 127 mins.

Quoted: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Moonlight

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Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

naomi-harris-in-moonlight

5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Free State of Jones

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Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Gary Ross; Leonard Hartman

Directed by: Gary Ross

In Gary Ross’ new film, inspired by the life of Civil War medic-turned-rebel Newton Knight, the firepower has been upgraded from crossbows to muskets and bayonets, but both the fire and the power in the former Hunger Games director are absent in Free State of Jones, a comprehensive but long, bloated and surprisingly boring look at a turbulent period in the history of a rural Mississippi county.

The movie opens promisingly with a scene that puts us right in harm’s way alongside Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight. French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme’s unflinching camera plunges us into the nightmare that is war. Things get really nasty as we follow him back and forth between battlefield and MASH unit, carting off dozens of casualties, including young boys (represented by Jacob Lofland‘s gun-shy Daniel). We’re witnessing the Battle of Corinth, the second such violent encounter this area, a key railroad junction, has experienced following a siege earlier that year (1862).

This bloodbath is catalytic for our hero, a farmer whose idealistic extremism is matched only by the extremes of poverty he lives in, as he abandons his post and returns home to his sister Serena (Keri Russell), no longer feeling it is his duty to support a war that only the very wealthy seem to benefit from. It’s back on his farm where he meets and befriends Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave woman who has been secretly learning to read and who will introduce him to an underground society of runaway slaves and a handful of other disenchanted southerners.

The thrust of the narrative focuses on Newton’s transformation and how he becomes perceived by those he has left behind. His new duty is to inspire the downtrodden into action and to lead them in a movement that would ultimately establish south-central Mississippi as a place free from slavery and other forms of oppression and persecution. As the war continues the population in Newton’s militia increases as more Confederate soldiers desert their troops, though the disintegration of the fabric of honest American living continues.

Large crops of corn are being confiscated and sold by Confederates who have conveniently reinterpreted recent lawmaking as their entitlement to 90% of whatever they happen to find, leaving farmers with a stash that’s precisely the opposite of what the law provides for. There’s a sizable chunk of film spent on Newton trying to persuade Union forces to recognize Jones County as a free and independent entity. That comes and goes. Later still, after the war has ended, we see Newton continuing to push for racial equality as he takes up the mantle for Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a former slave he befriended years ago in the swamps where the uprising began.

The screenplay attempts to develop Moses and Newton concurrently but that ambition also becomes its greatest downfall. Neither character is given enough perspective to seem truly changed. Ali gets a shade more attention later as we see him slowly succumbing to anger when violence is brought upon his family. Newton, seemingly the kind of individual who voluntarily shoulders more than his fair share of stress, chooses to help a dear friend in need. His dedication to the cause is consistent with many a vet who tragically struggle to leave the battlefield behind psychologically. You could consider his benevolence a symptom of some larger personal issue and it is in this regard his travails truly become compelling.

But before you start heading for the exits, we still need to finish talking plot. (I know, I’m in full-on ramble mode today.) While all of the aforementioned is being addressed on a timeline that stretches several long, grueling years — one look comparing McConaughey at the end of the film to his appearance at the beginning would be enough to confirm — there’s a bigger arc to consider: that of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). In present-day Mississippi Davis is on trial for trying to marry a white woman. He himself is one-eighth black and therefore faces a five-year prison sentence for unlawfully cohabiting with a person of another race.

There are other things wrong with Free State of Jones, but among the more painful missteps is without doubt the editing, chiefly the decision to jettison the audience right out of the 1800s with a jarring flash-forward cut that jumps 85 years on the timeline out of nowhere. (Okay, so it’s not literally present-day Mississippi.) In the end the Knight case is tossed out by a Mississippi Supreme Court who think it’s better to maintain the status quo than to rewrite the rulebook. The courthouse scene, rather than tracing the legacy of Newton Knight, comes across as a superfluous and clumsy attempt at contriving a sense of epic-ness. (If you’re going to show us the significance of this story to Jones County residents of today, wouldn’t it be better to showcase the harsh realities of that court date in the closing scenes?)

When it comes to the reenactments, Free State of Jones is neither memorable nor utterly forgettable. And of course the question on everyone’s mind is how well its star fares. Well, the McConaissance hasn’t come to a grinding halt, but the party seems to be dying down. Still, this is a solid performance from an A-lister who just may be starting to experience the drawback of going on such a dramatic run in recent years, beginning with his humbled turn in Mud and “ending” with his crafty black-hole navigation skills in Interstellar.

Mbatha-Raw comes to mind next, with her quietly powerful and soothing presence as the self-educating Rachel. She’s a good fit for McConaughey on screen, even if the latter still casts larger shadows. Then there’s Mahershala Ali as the escaped slave Moses. Ali affects a stoicism that gets harder to watch as Confederate forces continue threatening (and carrying out) lynchings and dog hunts. Ali has presence here but he’s much more worth watching in Netflix’s very own House of Cards.

It’s hard to judge many of the supporting performances as the majority of them serve no greater purpose than to await their exit from the story. Death becomes the drumbeat everyone marches to. Invariably as time pushes on we say more goodbyes than hello’s and it becomes apparent towards the fraying ends of our patience that we were never meant to get to know the others. They exist simply to provide casualties. Or maybe it only seems that way since few beyond our trio of good guys have anything of significance to say or do.

In short, it becomes very difficult to care about a grassroots movement when all we see are actors standing around listening to a particularly high-profile thespian delivering his soap box speeches. Calling Free State of Jones a terrible movie is about as accurate as a bayonet, but it’s certainly forgettable and barely more than mediocre.

Free State of Jones

Recommendation: I still think Matthew McConaughey is the big draw here, and Free State of Jones‘ themes make it a fairly timely movie this July. Unfortunately the star doesn’t quite deliver like he has in recent films, though it’s hardly a turn for the worse. The story is simply all over the place and takes on too much to keep even the longest of attention spans focused on all that it has to offer. There is a lot of potential here and it’s so frustrating seeing it go to waste.

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles. Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for. Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you. Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-2-teaser-poster

Release: Friday, November 20, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Craig; Danny Strong

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Take your best shot, Mr. Lawrence. I’m ready for anything. Or, I thought I was.

Four films, three years and nearly $2 billion in global box office receipts later, we arrive at the bittersweet farewell to a remarkable franchise, one that has been so captivating since its inception it hooked one of the biggest cynics I know of the young adult film adaptations from the get-go. That person is me. I tend not to give a lot of credit to these films, feeling so comfortable in my dismissal of many of these movies that when their poor performance (commercial and/or critical) pops up on my screen a few days later, my only response is a simple, satisfied chuckle. Then I click out of the screen and move on.

There’s been something markedly different about Katniss Everdeen and her targeted bow and arrows though. And I swear it’s not because I happen to think Jennifer Lawrence is really cute. Okay, well I suppose that helps. But Shailene Woodley is a babe too! I’m not going to mince my words here: physical attraction is a big part of it, but what has really helped up the ante for the cinematic treatment(s) of Suzanne Collins’ best-sellers has been an emphasis on genuine emotion filtered through an uncommonly bleak political lens.

Collins’ final novel being split into two films has caused quite the stir amongst passionate fans of both the film and book franchise, and while it’s difficult to argue the motives for expanding the HGCU (that’s the Hunger Games Cinematic Universe) into a quadrilogy are fueled by anything other than reaping financial rewards, I personally have enjoyed getting to spend this much more time with some truly well-developed and exceptionally memorable characters.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2, then, wastes no time in immersing audiences right into the psychological, and now physical, turmoil that has consumed the two victors of the 74th Hunger Games: Peeta is still suffering from the trauma he endured at the hands of President Snow having been captured after the events of Catching Fire, while Katniss recovers from neck injuries sustained in his attack upon her during one of his psychotic breaks.

The reality of this franchise ending is surprisingly difficult to reconcile. On one level, and as one might expect, this final chapter manifests as the most somber one yet as we watch the events of the previous films sculpt the faces of the familiar into expressions of deep despair, the weight of full-fledged war carried upon Katniss’ shoulders and anyone who has stood by her in the belief that the nation shouldn’t be subjected to Snow’s oppression any longer. There emerges a strong emotional rift between Katniss and Peeta, who can no longer be trusted. All that stuff’s easier to swallow when compared to the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman though. In his final on-screen appearance, his Plutarch Heavensbee is notably less prevalent, yet his spirit, in all of its organic, non-digitized glory, leaves a lasting impression.

The stakes have never been higher, yet the premise so simple. To the surprise of no one, Katniss’ only goal is killing President Snow. Like, for real this time. Feeling restricted in her capacity as merely a symbol of hope for the people of Panem, she’s determined to get back to doing real damage and will abandon protocol laid out by District 13 leader Alma Coin that’s been set in place to protect her. She joins a squad of soldiers led by Boggs (Mahershala Ali) and Lieutenant Jackson (Michelle Forbes) who are tasked with following behind the other troops into the Capitol in order to film one final segment  for District 13’s anti-Snow propagandistic documentary.

Katniss of course is less concerned with the documentation as she is with finishing what she had started so long ago. In so doing, she must confront her deepest moral quandaries yet. The choices she must make as she marches through a Capitol that resembles Berlin circa post-World War 2, only outfitted with death traps that make the Quarter Quell look like child’s play by comparison, will be next to impossible and will more often than not require her to decide how many lives she’s willing to sacrifice to secure a brighter future for Panem.

Lawrence has fared exceptionally well since taking over the reigns from Gary Ross who established The Hunger Games as an uncommonly intelligent and bleak young adult film franchise. Obviously it is author Suzanne Collins to whom we should be most indebted for conjuring such an elaborate and audaciously political system over which fans, both casual and dedicated alike, have obsessed. After all, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate those who have been faithful to the series just for the star power and the experience from those who have been so inspired by coetaneous themes of social and political injustice as to become more politically active.

When I inevitably buy the box set, I’ll in all likelihood be confirming the fact that rather than playing out as individual, disjointed stories, this franchise operates as a cohesive whole, cranking up the personal tension between Katniss and Snow methodically, assimilating audiences effortlessly over a three-year period by playing up the ruthless villainy of Donald Sutherland’s white-ness (not a reference to his complexion) versus the purity of the Girl on Fire and her intentions of restoring the balance. Maybe if it’s not the religion of the church of the Mockingjay that’s compelling, nor how supposedly faithful the films have been to the source material, it’s the level of conviction and passion in Lawrence’s vision.

Jennifer Lawrence has blossomed into a reliable actress and that’s largely thanks to her contributions to these large-scale, larger-budget spectacles. (Yes, David O’Russell, you may have her now but Gary Ross developed her skill set.) Her consistency will be one of the aspects I’ll be missing most in the coming Novembers. Nevermind Woody Harrelson and his kind and affable Haymitch. Stanley Tucci’s hairdo. Elizabeth Banks and her eternally upbeat Effie Trinket. The nastiness of the Games, or of Sutherland’s tyranny. Indeed, if there is one word you could boil these films down to, it’s just that: consistent. That’s a rare quality to find in a franchise these days. Just ask the Terminator.

Jennifer Lawrence, Mahershala Ali and Liam Hemsworth in 'The Hunger Games Mockingjay - Pt 2'

Recommendation: A lot can be said about the decision to split Mockingjay into two parts but this reviewer is a fan of it. It’s given me time to enjoy these characters more and the expansion of the series over four films/years has made for one of the most impressive film franchises I’ve ever seen. These films mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but if I were to make a recommendation for this film, it’s that you can appreciate it on its own almost as much as a part of a bigger picture. Almost, is the key word though. A spectacular finish to an uncommonly engaging story has been delivered.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Our lives were never ours. They belong to Snow and our deaths do too. But if you kill him Katniss, if you end all of this, all those deaths . . . they mean something.”

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