Posts Tagged ‘oscar isaac’

It’s always a dicey proposition when you’re reviewing a new Star Wars flick. One way or another, you almost can’t win — I recall, for instance, my lukewarm review of Star Wars : The Force Awakens being met with a comment stating, I shit you not, that “I agree with all your criticisms, but you should have given it a positive review anyway.” When I asked, naturally, why the hell my review should have been more sunny even though all my criticisms were legit, said individual responded, I assume with a straight face, something to the effect of “well, it’s more difficult to write a positive review than a negative one, so you should challenge yourself more.”

If I had any sense, I would have just walked away at that point, perhaps with a quip like “it’s only ‘more difficult’ to write a positive review of a film when said film sucks,” but instead I pressed further, insisting that it takes no more effort to write a glowing review than it does to write a pissy one, which is obviously and inarguably true, and was met with a (very) poor man’s bit of philosophy about life in general, my internet sparring partner insisting that “it’s hard work to be positive about anything, and way too easy to be negative.” Uhhhmmm — okay, if you say so.

For the record, I am not “down on” life. Hell, I wasn’t even that “down on” The Force Awakens. I just thought it was a mediocre re-tread of shit we’d seen done earlier, and better. What was painfully obvious, not just in retrospect but at the time, was that this particular commenter knew that’s all the flick amounted to, as well, but he liked it anyway, and was bent out of shape that I was both decidedly more cool on it than he was, and was able to articulate in fairly cogent terms why the overflowing love it was getting at the time really didn’t make much sense.

Well, that was two years ago, and when the hype died down, sure enough, my opinion at the time rather solidified into something like the overall consensus view. The Force Awakens hit a number of nostalgic notes, it made people feel the right way, but it certainly didn’t break any new ground, and basically amounted to a couple hours of fan service. Clearly, then, it would be left to the second chapter of the new trilogy to actually move things forward in any kind of significant way.

As early reviews for writer/director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars : The Last Jedi first trickled, then flowed, in, I was feeling reasonably good about its prospects to do just that : critics seemed to like it, while hard-core fans seemed to hate it. Pretty good sign right there that the amount of “fan-wank” in this was going to be minimal. It even seemed like Johnson was taking some risks here, and let’s face it, when you move forward, you’re going to necessarily leave plenty of overly-protective sorts behind. Maybe now that the Star Wars “greatest hits” reel was out of the way, we could get down to business.

And to an extent, Johnson does exactly that. Picking up essentially right where the last film left off, we see the so-called “Resistance, ” Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron in particular, scoring a pyrrhic victory against the “Empire-Lite” that is the newly-labeled “First Order,” only to find their space armada surrounded and running low on fuel while, concurrently with all this, Daisy Ridley’s Rey attempts to lure the reclusive Luke Skywalker (played by an older, but no less wooden and whiny, Mark Hamill) out of retirement to come save the galaxy from Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis, who joins Frank Oz, Lupita Nyong’o and, after a fashion, Carrie Fisher, as CGI “cast members”) and his now-apprentice — and Luke’s former trainee — Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Those two plotlines take up most of the flick, and certainly Rey’s eventual training (no big surprise, but she’s the titular last Jedi, not Luke) in the ways of The Force is loaded with any number of call-backs to the Luke/Yoda scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, but beyond that, yeah, the “nostalgia factor” here is kept to a welcome minimum. A third major story strand involving John Boyega’s Finn and new sidekick/potential love interest Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempting to locate, and then secure the services of, a supposed “master code breaker” in order to disable an Imperial — sorry, First Order — blockade is a bit hackneyed on the whole and too dependent on a series of lucky coincidences to be overly interesting, but I’m willing, probably just because it’s the holiday season, to give Johnson props for trying with that one, even if it’s one big “twist” moment amounts to audiences saying to themselves “hey, whaddya know, I never thought I’d see Benicio Del Toro in a Star Wars movie.”

Surprise casting moves seem to be a running theme of The Last Jedi in a more general sense, though, too, truth be told, and since we’re on that subject Laura Dern should get some credit for her turn as Vice Admiral Holdo, who takes over the Reb — goddammit, I’m doing it again — Resistance fleet when Fisher’s Princess/General Leia is incapacitated for a good chunk of the runtime. In fact, of all the various competing subplots, the one she features in prominently is probably the most effective, as her motives — and, by extension, those of the Resistance leadership itself — come into question, throwing some shades of grey into what’s usually a fairly black-and-white Star Wars cinematic “universe.” Things work out alright in the end, of course — they always do in these movies — but at least there’s some genuine intrigue and tension along the way.

Speaking of ends, though, that’s where most of the trouble here comes in. Johnson has, by my count, two “red herring” endings that he toys with until we get to the actual big finale, and by then you’re sort of ready for the thing to be over. The conclusion, when it arrives, is every bit as spectacular as it needs/is expected to be, but there’s definitely a sense that it’s past due. So, yeah, if you’re getting the idea that this film’s third act is more than a bit herky-jerky, you’re absolutely right.

Probably the biggest knock against The Last Jedi, though, is one that plagued The Force Awakens, as well : simply put, this First Order outfit just never seems like an “A-list” threat. Kylo Ren is an even more unstable basket case in this flick than he was last time (ditching the mask only accentuates his status as a lame bad guy), “Boy General” Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is about as intimidating as a frat boy incensed at getting to the liquor store ten minutes after closing time and banging on the door to get in, and when Lord Snoke is finally removed from the equation, these guys are even more decisively “Bush League” than they were before. We all know the Resistance is going to win the day in the final act of this trilogy (which will no doubt be J.J. Abrams doing an updated take on Return Of The Jedi), but damn, with this Keystone Kops crew as their adversaries, the outcome is never even momentarily in doubt.

Still, for all that, The Last Jedi has more on the “plus” side side of its ledger than the “minus.” It establishes Rey as the powerful central protagonist she needs to be, it actually gives Poe Dameron plenty to do, and Finn and Rose make a good team. In short, it’s far more concerned with the characters we’re supposed to care about now rather than those we cared about a quarter-century (or more) ago — even if Hamill gets top billing in the credits.  It steps out of the long shadow cast by the franchise’s past (hell, it’s unafraid to poke fun at its own mythology, although some of the humor comes off as a little bit forced on occasion), even if it does so in a wobbly and uneven manner, and makes a statement (albeit, again, a shaky one) about where the series is in the here and now, rather than taking all of its cues from the past.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I hope my quasi-antagonist from a couple years back reads this review, since my final verdict should be right up his alley : Star Wars : The Last Jedi has a lot of problems — some of them pretty large — but you know what? I liked it anyway.

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The late 1960s/early 1970s were a tumultuous time for the “Big Two” comics publishers — with Jack Kirby having taken his creative genius back over to DC, then-Marvel head honcho Stan Lee quickly decided that putting his name on other peoples’ work was too much hassle for him to bother with, and so turned the reigns of the future billion-dollar business over to the youthful Roy Thomas, who had first come to the Smilin’ One’s attention for running the ahead-of-its-time Alter Ego fanzine. Thomas was eager to do any number of things at the self-described “House Of Ideas,” but rocking the boat wasn’t one of them. Having grown up on the Kirby/Ditko/Everett/Wood/Burgos/Heck/Trimpe/Lee brand of super-heroics, his primary concern, creatively speaking, was to keep on serving up more of the same to an eager public, and to that end, his first wave of hires came largely from the same fandom ranks that he had once lorded over himself — names like Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and others that would come to dominate Marvel credit boxes in the ’70s were all examples of “fan creators” whose literary and artistic tastes — and ambitions — were shaped by the groundbreaking innovators who had preceded them.

Meanwhile, over at DC, Kirby may have been busy churning out an impressive, even mind-boggling, array of iconic characters and worlds (many of which would be “borrowed” by one George Lucas as the building blocks of the franchise we’re here to talk about today), but the rest of the company’s let’s-not-call-it-a-bullpen was populated with the likes of Len Wein, Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman,  even a 13-year-old named Jim Shooter who would later succeed Thomas as top dog at DC’s cross-town rival — and like Marvel’s “young turks,” these fresh-at-the-time faces were all “graduates” of comic book fandom, brought in when the seasoned pulp pros who made up the company’s earlier freelancer ranks, men like Gardner Fox and John Broome, were summarily fired by management for having the audacity to try to form a union and push for radical things like health insurance and retirement benefits.

It’s a situation that persists, as you’ve no doubt guessed, to this day, with skilled, “overpaid” veteran hands being replaced on books whenever they ask for a raise by 19-year-olds fresh out of mom and dad’s house who only a few weeks earlier passed their art portfolios or spec scripts across convention tables from their clammy, sweaty, trembling hands into the ever-eager paws of DC and Marvel editors always on the lookout for cheap, easily-exploited talent. The end result? A half-century of hopelessly derivative storytelling punctuated only occasionally by the arrival, and usually-quick departure, of visionary talents who really do want to expand the medium’s boundaries, only to find their work drowned under and endless sea of “updated” Spider-Man vs. Doctor Doom battles.

Comics, though, are only the most glaring and obvious example of what happens to entertainment media when former fans are put in charge : it’s happening in movies and TV, too, and there is perhaps no better witness for this particular prosecution than J.J. Abrams, who, having cut his teeth on prime-time fare such as Alias and Lost, was soon handed the keys to one of Hollywood’s most dependable cash cows, Star Trek, and, having proven his bank-ability there, found himself approached by Marvel’s semi-new corporate parent, Disney, to revive George Lucas’ Star Wars juggernaut when Lucas sold out for a reported $4 billion and headed off into the sunset.

A perhaps-intimidated Abrams said no at first, but when no other names leaped to the forefront, The Mouse came calling again — apparently with even more money in its bag — and the rest, of course, is history. Which brings us, finally, to episode VII of the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens.

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Certainly there’s nothing on offer here that would offend long-time fans in the way that Lucas’ reviled prequel trilogy did, and while I found myself smiling more often than not as I watched the film, it only took all of about five minutes’ reflection afterwards for me to wonder if Abrams’ note-for-note fealty might not be its own kind of insidious trap — and one that bears a strong correlation to the situation at Marvel and DC I discussed just moments ago. There’s no doubt that studio edicts determined a lot of the content for Star Wars : The Force Awakens (I don’t think, for example, that it’s any coincidence that the first image we saw in the first trailer for the film was a highly-marketable robot that looks like a fucking soccer ball), but I don’t sense any real director-vs.-his bosses tension here, either. I’m sure that the film Abrams wanted to make is the one that got made (having veteran hand Lawrence Kasdan on board to co-write the script virtually guarantees smooth continuity anyway), it’s just that his vision for Star Wars is no different than what the bean counters want : a two-hour toy commercial peppered with just the right character arcs and plot beats to satisfy life-long fans and to silence (most, anyway) critics. By and large it works — but even under the full-throttle onslaught of  fan-wank, some glaring weaknesses are obvious, so I might as well delve into those right now, with a commensurate “mild spoilers ahead” warning attached.

For one thing, the intergalactic politics of The Force Awakens make no sens whatsoever. The one-time Rebels appear to have won the day, with the former Empire in retreat, but even so, a rump that apparently can’t get fighting out of its system known as the Resistance endures — presumably to “resist” both the very same government they’ve created, as well as the remnants of the fascist/Dark Side apparatus that have re-grouped as the First Order. Except then we find out that the new Republic in in league with the Resistance, and so appears to be supporting, if not even funding, its own opposition under the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” since neither group is particularly fond of the First Order. There’s reason for both to fear the FO, of course, given that they’ve perfected some new super-weapon that’s much larger and more powerful than the dreaded Death Star — but the movie is almost 3/4 over when we find that out, given that Abrams and company have taken some mighty side-steps from their supposedly “main” narrative that introduces new characters like Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in order to re-introduce familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Pricess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and, eventually, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Don’t get me wrong — I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy and want to know what happened to all these folks as much as anyone, but to sacrifice valuable screen-time that could be utilized to establish a new mythology just to put some purportedly- finishing touches on the old strikes me as a colossal missed opportunity.

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Speaking of which — giving the great Max von Sydow a grand total of five minutes (more than enough time for an actor of his stature to create a memorable character) to make one appearance before getting killed definitely qualifies as just that, as does relegating the immensely talented Lupita Nyong’o to voice-over work for a CGI stand-in. We expect that sort of treatment for Andy Serkis (and he gets it as the First Order’s new Emperor Palpatine stand-in), but one of the most promising new talents of her generation surely deserves better.

As does Oscar Isaac, frankly, who admittedly struggles mightily as “the new Han Solo,” but should have been given a chance to actually develop his character a bit more before disappearing altogether until the film’s final act. And while Ridley and Boyega — especially Ridley — come up big in their roles and show themselves as being more than capable of carrying a film, Abrams’ hard lean on the nostalgia button insures that they’re given no opportunity to do so.

On the bad guy front, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a character hemmed in by his director’s overly-reverent take on the original trilogy, as well. Appearing at first to be a somewhat lackluster Darth Vader redux, his backstory is fleshed out all too quickly (and all too awkwardly, as the “infodump” conversation between his parents veers into “painfully stilted” territory), and his big confrontation with his father? Well, it plays out more or less exactly as you’d guess it would. It also doesn’t help that Driver himself lacks the acting chops to convincingly sell you on his character’s supposed “emotional conflict.”

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And yet, for all that — not to mention the crass, overblown commercialization attendant with any Star Wars film that’s blown entirely out of all sense of proportion thanks to the franchise’s new corporate overlords — I still can’t bring myself to actively dislike The Force Awakens. The movie wrapped me with a warm, nostalgic glow for about two hours and, pathetic as it sounds (and no doubt is), I felt like a kid again for a little while — and living as we do in a time when there’s very real talk of us walling off  our borders, deporting Mexicans en masse, forcing Muslims to carry special passes and forbidding them to enter the country, and invading one Middle Eastern nation after another for with the explicit aim of stealing their oil, anything that harkens back to a simpler, kinder, saner time is worth something.

But I could have gotten the exact same feeling watching any of the three original Star Wars films, and therein lies The Force Awakens‘ greatest failing : by being so deferential to the Lucas/Kirshner/Marquand trilogy, J.J. Abrams hasn’t given us much by way of a compelling reason to care about his new one.

 

We’ve just got to face it, folks — Ryan Gosling is everywhere these days. Well, okay, maybe not everywhere, but he is in two of the most talked-about films currently playing in theaters, so let’s take a look at each, shall we?

Truth be told, bad-ass Dane Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a movie I meant to review a few weeks back when it first came out, but a vacation, and then lots of catch-up at the day job, prevented me from doing so. Honestly, though, it’s just as well because now I can comment not only on the film itself, but also on some of the absolutely ludicrous backlash it’s generated, most notably from a Michigan woman who is suing the filmmakers for not delivering the Fast And Furious-type garbage action flick she was expecting, and has thrown in some absolutely unfounded charges of anti-semitism (that we won’t even do the courtesy of examining) just for good measure. In short, while most critics, and most of the Hollywood self-appointed elite, are absolutely drooling over this flick, a small but for some reason extremely vocal minority of moviegoers hate this thing with a passion bordering on the pathological.

Why? Good fucking question, because for once, the critical establishment has it absolutely right — Drive is nothing less than a modern masterpiece. Heady praise, to be sure, but damn if this film hasn’t earned it. Refn is known for his grittiness, whether he’s looking at the life of one of Britain’s most notorious criminals in Bronson, or demystifying (and consequently re-mystifying — trust me, if you see it you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about) the traditional Viking warrior saga in Valhalla Rising, and Drive , while as stylistically different to those two films as they are to each other, is no exception — this is one movie that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty.

Despite a heroically liberal amount of — uhhhmmm — “borrowing” from early-80s action thrillers of the Michael Mann and William Friedkin variety (Manhunter and To Live And Die In L.A. being the two films this one is most often compared to, and not without good reason) and 70s exploitation fare (listen closely for the insertion of Riz Ortolani’s spellbinding theme from Goodbye, Uncle Tom about 2/3 of the way through the film), it’s Refn’s skill as an actor’s director, rather than his admittedly flashy visual and tonal homages, that carries the day here. His casting, though unorthodox, is spot-on, and, dare I say it, even visionary. Not many people would have the guts to cast Albert Brooks as a psycho mobster, and fewer directors still could actually make it work, but by kicking back and trusting his actors, Refn allows them to do what they do best and the result is more than one Oscar-worthy performance (even if Brooks is getting most of the accolades, the Academy shouldn’t look past Gosling and Bryan Cranston, either).

The story is deceptively simple — Gosling stars as a character known only as “Driver,” a part-time Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights at a garage and also as a wheelman for stick-up artists. His gigs in that less savory line of work are generally arranged for him by his boos, Shannon (Cranston), and while he tries his best to come off a working-class Steve McQueen, in truth Driver longs for some kind of stability and some people to care for. He thinks he may have found that type of set-up with his rather fetching new neighbor (played by Carey Mulligan) and her young son, but when neighbor-lady’s husband (portrayed by Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, any hopes of a romance on Driver’s part are dashed, but he still clings to the sense of normalcy and belonging this less-than-traditional family brings out in him, to the extent that he offers to (he thinks) help out when hubby gets in deep to some guys he knew from the inside who want him to pay off his “debt” by ripping off a pawn shop.

Needless to say, things don’t go well (and look for Christina Hendricks in a role about as far removed from the glitz and glamor of Mad Men as you’re going to find as a low-rent femme-less-than-fatale accomplice in this doomed caper), and soon Driver finds himself up shit creek with a couple of Shelly’s more unscrupulous friends, sleazebag mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks) and his underling Nino (Ron Perlman), who had some pretty direct ties to the whole affair and now want the money back to save their own asses. At this point the desperation amongst all the principal characters is so thick you can cut it with a knife, and Driver decides there’s only one way out — and not necessarily for himself. It’s the safety of his girl next door and her little boy that weighs first and foremost on his mind, and he’s willing to sacrifice everything and everyone including possibly even himself, to insure it.

A bloodbath of absolutely epic proportions ensues, that serves to change Driver’s lady-almost-love’s perceptions of him irrevocably for the worse even as he’s trying to save her, and before we can even blink we’ve gone headlong from gritty street drama into classical tragedy without even batting an eye. Not too many directors can pull this sleight-of-hand off so apparently effortlessly (Tarantino, for instance, to whom Refn is also being compared, certainly couldn’t, simply because subtlety just isn’t in his repertoire — and for all the blood and thunder that the last act of Drive has on offer, it’s still subtlety, especially in terms of the nuanced performances he coaxes out of his actors, that is the most deadly arrow in Refn’s quiver).

And it’s that last act that’s really at the heart of much of the backlash against this film. Yes, it’s deceptively marketed, but shit, this film is seriously hard to categorize. Part arthouse film, part exploitation flick (not that the line between the two need necessarily be a bright red demarcation — remember, a lot of “arsty” European flicks were marketed as grindhouse fare stateside in the 1970s), part character study, and part Greek tragedy, Drive, while not especially original per se in and of itself, nevertheless combines all of these disparate elements into a seamless whole that maybe by all rights shouldn’t work but does anyway and will not only stand the test of time but be more fully appreciated, this armchair critic strongly suspects, as the years go on (again, not unlike Manhunter and To Live And Die In L.A., which were hardly box office juggernauts in their day). It’s a heady and sometimes even disorientating mix to be sure, but for connoisseurs of cinema that’s equal parts heart, brains, and balls, it’s absolutely must-see viewing.