Arrival

© Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

(L-R) Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL.

Adapted for the screen from Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the first shot of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL telegraphs the outcome in a way that’s visually stunning, even emotionally grabbing, yet narratively third rate.

University linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought onto a team to decipher the language of an alien race that has positioned 12 spacecraft in various locations around the world.  I commend the screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, for not placing the spaceships in direct proximity to tourist attractions.

The story centers around the team of scientists, including Dr. Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), attempting to establish communications with the aliens.  She discovers that writing, rather than speech, may crack the cipher.  The reasoning makes sense in the moment: they can demonstrate actions and show the writing, and probably reproduce the writing easier than they can the speech.  But this begins a series of gaps that undermine the narrative.

Bradford Young’s (SELMA) cinematography tells part of the story before we know it.  Shallow depth of field is reversed, focusing on backdrops instead of subjects.  It foretells in two ways I won’t spoil, only to say that the lens through which we see others is just as important as the lens through which we see ourselves.

The aliens are gargantuan heptapods whose speech sounds like the amplified bellow of iron pipes in an antique house.  They’re surrounded by a gaseous mist, thought to be their atmosphere though it likely is much more.  Dr. Banks makes significant progress communicating with the heptapods, discovering that time is absent from their syntax.  They perceive time all at once, rather than a linear series of events.  Their aperception affects also how certain words come across to Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly, as well as the  11 other teams studying them.

This leads to the film’s central conflict.  Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) announces that they want to exchange weapons technology, and this leads to a serious misunderstanding of the aliens intent.  To illustrate why, think of the idiomatic meaning of the word “weapon” when we describe knowledge.  The phrase “death process” may mean “killing”, or it could mean “dying”.

But it’s at the edge of this intensely fascinating intellectual problem that the film errs.  We sense that the aliens need to know that humans can work together; perhaps this is all a test?  But Villeneuve and his writer leave a number of loose ends without explanation.  Why, if the point is about cooperation, does the story take place exclusively from one team’s point of view (as usual, the Americans)?  How does miming with symbols work faster than miming with words?  If a computer can be taught to reproduce the nuances of their complex script, can’t it learn to reproduce their speech as well?  Don’t the humans understand that if the aliens actually wanted to destroy them they’d have done so?  Why attempt to destroy the contact between the aliens and the one team that seems to be making headway?  How can humans possibly comprehend anything about fifth-dimensional beings?

These all seem like elementary problems easily resolved for a film that aspires as highly as ARRIVAL does. Adding insult to injury, Forest Whitaker’s talents are wasted as the curt Colonel Weber.  He’s the Black Movie Colonel who doesn’t trust the very experts whose aid his mission is entirely dependent upon.  The Chinese are potrayed yet again in film as militaristic blowhards; contrast this with the Asian scientists in THE MARTIAN.  And finally, for a highly intellectual film it concludes on both a preposterous deus ex as well as a depressingly sentimental coda worthy of a Ron Howard picture, asking us to empathize with barely an outline of a character.  I understand the source material, but here’s one case where cinematically there’s a more interesting human story in the working relationship between Renner and Adams, who both acted beautifully.  It’s not a bad flick.  However, for a film about resolving communication gaps, ARRIVAL creates too many of them.

Moonlight

©2016, A24.

Photo: David Bornfriend.

 

There’s a scene in the first act of Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT in which the young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) asks his surrogate father, Juan (Mahershala Ali), two questions:  Is his mother on drugs and does Juan sell them to her.   In that moment, Chiron looks to Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), to keep him honest.  After Juan cops to it, the fragile, taciturn boy whose detractors have nicknamed “Little”, leaves.  Juan breaks down into tears of guilt; he failed Little.

Adapted from Tarell McRaney’s semi-autobiographical play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, we are gifted a unique look into the life of a youth grappling with his burgeoning sexual identity.  “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan.  Juan replies that it’s a word used to slander gay people.

MOONLIGHT is structured classically as a three act play:  Little. Chiron. Black.  Chiron by birth, his friend Kevin nicknames him Black—the significance is never revealed but it does fit the internalization of Chiron’s emotions.  Between the bullies at school and the bully of a crack-addicted mother at home, Paula (Naomie Harris), Little avoids conversation, except with Kevin and Teresa.

In the second act, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) continues to struggle with concentrating in class while others bully him, particularly a much larger boy, Terrel (Patrick Decile).  Without spoiling this pivotal middle chapter, I call your attention to the next morning.  Chiron, incensed, enters the school.  Note his clenched left fist and deliberate pace.

When we meet the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in the third act, he’s embraced Black by name, but not yet in mind and body.  It’s not a journey without an implied destination, but it’s how Jenkins gets us there that is of import.  Notice the crown atop his car’s dashboard.  He is his surrogate father’s son.

Representation has been at the center of the discussion for the past year since #OscarsSoWhite trended.  Earlier this week, DOCTOR STRANGE director Scott Derrickson made the rounds whitesplaining the tough choices (!) between typecasting an Asian “dragon lady” versus whitewashing the Asian character, as if it’s impossible to write an Asian character well and cast appropriately.  On Twitter I expressed curiosity why Derrickson never once thought to consult Asian filmmakers and resolve the situation, rather than screw it up and take the slap on the wrist.  At the other end of the artistic spectrum, Jenkins does the impossible: He informs the viewer about the impoverished black experience in America whilst representing the broader experience of the adolescent trying to become secure in his or her identity.

Jenkins accomplishes a feat of narrative genius.  The three stories of Little, Chiron, and Black, could exist separately as shorts.   As Rhodes informed us at the Q&A, the three principals never met on set and never discussed each others performances.  Their interpretations of the character come entirely from the script and directorial guidance.  Still, we see them as one person in different stages.

Still, we draw comparisons, none more apt than when Black finds himself alone with Kevin after a reunion dinner made with such care you’ll cry the next time you look at a plate of Cuban garlic chicken.  In that solemn moment, Black accepts himself.  To be a gay man is one thing.  To be gay and black is a lifetime of rejection from your community.  Admitting his love for Kevin, we witness Black transform before our eyes into Chiron, into Little.  He always knew who he was, but now he isn’t ashamed of it.

A coworker nearing retirement once told me, “You have to start making decisions for your life, before your life starts making decisions for you.”  Two years later he passed away.  Inevitably, Black’s arc takes him from Atlanta back to Miami, to Kevin, now a cook after a stint in prison.  It’s a nine hour drive, my wife points out.  Black would’ve driven a week to be with Kevin.

“I look at love on a scale of one to ten, and I feel like we settle for sixes and sevens, which is why we have divorce.  But I feel like Chiron found his “ten” in Kevin when he was seven years old.” – Trevante Rhodes

Doctor Strange

©2016 Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange in Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE.

Like all comic book interpretations of gainful employment, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t merely a neurosurgeon but the most perceptive neurosurgeon in the universe.  That is, before he even develops any superpowers.  Following a car accident that causes extensive damage to Strange’s hands (but oddly not his legs, his arms, or his spine), he reaches out to various colleagues for a medical solution.  Then, he turns to mystics in Nepal, including The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who believes that Dr. Strange can help them defeat a fallen sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who plots to destroy the universe.  There go my lunch plans.

A quick study, Strange masters the art of sorcery inside of what feels like a week due to the director’s roughshod pacing.   Protecting the Earth from extradimensional evil are three temples located in major cities, one of which comes under siege by Kaecilius and his associates.  This incident thrusts Strange into the Role He Doesn’t Want To Play.

Sorcerers can cross dimensions, instantaneously travel great distances and make the world topsy-turvy in a literal sense.  Consequently, while director Scott Derrickson attempts to rationalize whitewashed casting (the aforementioned Swinton in a role obviously fit for Michelle Yeoh, an actual Asian martial artist), that’s merely a symptom of his bigger problem: a complete lack of imagination.  Marvel and DC’s comic book films invariably fall into an action/comic genre.  Comics are a medium, not a genre.  They’ve spanned many different genres in print.  One of the few standouts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is THE WINTER SOLDIER.  It was designed as a political thriller, inspired in part by 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.

Just as quickly as they branched, they returned to formula in subsequent offerings.  Some will argue this was due to economics but with international box office, video on demand, and other channels of distribution, every Marvel movie has been an overwhelming success.  They’re the biggest game in town, yet they refuse to take risks and drive better tastes.  I don’t believe for one second that Marvel couldn’t explore comedy, horror, drama, or any subgenre and turn a profit on it.  If grabbing the most cash possible is their only worry, they need only adjust production budgets accordingly.

If nothing else, the picture has a sense of humor.  Otherwise, DOCTOR STRANGE would be a dull walk down short-term memory lane, recycling their origin story formula: Affluent white guy gets knocked down a peg or two, gets rebuked by his girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) when he needs her support the most, has an epiphany at the hands of an (inexplicably white) eastern master, and re-emerges as a superhero: Doctor Peculiar.

The Blue Pill: LGBT Romance in the Anti-Matrix

Black Mirror, ©2016, Netflix.

(L-R) Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Kelly and Mackenzie Davis as Yorkie in the Season 3 episode, “San Junipero” of BLACK MIRROR.

BLACK MIRROR may be the series that breaks the idiotic fad of multi-episodic arcs concocted purely to fabricate vacuous suspense for an entire season while nothing of import actually occurs. This trend reached its zenith with six seasons of J.J. Abrams’ LOST, the last four of which appallingly exploited one’s patience. We aren’t completely rid of the habit. MR. ROBOT thrives in spite of its ongoing arc, but that’s in part because its characters are each fascinatingly layered and complex.

Created for Channel 4 and migrated to Netflix, this anthology’s episodes each run a full sixty minutes in which not every question is resolved. However, we are meant to ponder the ones that aren’t rather than waiting like dupes for an answer promised that never comes, perhaps until after death. Does that make network television a religion?

Writer/Producer Charlie Brooker’s BLACK MIRROR is part Twilight Zone, part Amazing Stories… Both series explored how the modern world, culture, and technology, affected our lives by turning one or another element on its side. In BLACK MIRROR, the result is often a sobering social commentary on our sociocultural trajectory, given how technology enables our narcissism and distances us just enough to obliterate our empathy. “San Junipero” tries the obverse route, a world that steers away from Orwell and Bradbury’s dystopias… or does it?

SPOILERS AHEAD: If you haven’t already seen the episode, drop everything you’re doing and watch it now.

In 1987 a bespectacled, diffident Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) finds herself in a bar/arcade called Tucker’s.  An awkward teen, Davis (Billy Griffin Jr.), chums up to her by explaining that the coin-op she’s playing has multiple endings.  Davis strikes out through no fault of his own. A good kid who means well, he might write parodies of 80s pop music some day. Yorkie looks and feels out of place even in a time to which she’s perfectly suited.  We don’t yet make anything else of learning that her eyeglasses are purely for effect. Enter Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the fiery club kid in a sequined denim jacket–riffing off Appollonia in PURPLE RAIN. She and Yorkie hit it off immediately, by which point you think you see where this is all going, but you don’t. What follows will take you through an emotional and temporal journey on par with the series finale of Six Feet Under.

As the episode progresses, clues drop that all is not as it seems.  Yorkie observes that the fashions look like they were copied from a movie, as if Tucker’s were a carefully crafted facsimile of the 1980’s.  We might dismiss this as evidence of the pop culture echo chamber the 80’s really were–fashions copied from MTV, Miami Vice, Pretty in Pink… But the seams in the curtain start to rip: Repeated references to time limits and the differences between seeming and being alive.  San Junipero, it turns out, is a virtual space where the elderly and the terminally ill go to die.

As the veil lifts on San Junipero’s inner workings, we discover that Yorkie became quadriplegic at 21 following her attempt at vehicular suicide.  Kelly’s health is failing but they’re both roughly the same age.  A romance ignites, but what could these two have in common?

The episode’s leitmotif dwells in Kelly and Yorkie’s separate but constant gaze westward to the ocean.  Symbolically, it fits that Yorkie’s youth was spent on the open coast with an uncharted future ahead of her, whereas Kelly had planted her roots firmly in the landlocked soil of the Nevada desert. Kelly had a husband, Richard, for more than forty years, and a daughter, Alison.  In San Junipero, named for the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra y Ferrer who founded 21 missions along the California coast, she shows Yorkie the house that reminds her of her younger days.  It’s not her childhood home.  It’s where she raised Alison (that’s her in the photograph, not Kelly’s mother) who died at 39.

While Yorkie is scheduled to “pass over”, to become a permanent resident of the nostalgia-laden cybersociety, Kelly refuses.  She cannot bear the guilt of having the second chance her daughter never did.  There are allusions to religious faith (or the lack thereof) which poke around the edges of the question burning at the center of the episode: In what sense does our existence matter?

Let’s ignore the fact that cosmically we’re all pretty irrelevant in a universe that has, it turns out, ten times as many galaxies as previously thought (2 trillion for those counting).  For Yorkie’s ultra-religious family, passing over is out of the question.   The workaround presents a moral dilemma for Kelly who could spend her remaining days mourning her daughter, or she could spare Yorkie an eternity of the same loneliness she suffered in a life likewise cut too short.

Is there a meaning, a purpose to that virtual existence?  Is there a meaning to this one?  If our identity is the product of our collection of memories and experiences, then aren’t the digital copies of Yorkie’s and Kelly’s memories and experiences also them?  Perhaps not in the sense of biological continuity, but a transcendent “them”, breaking off from the continuity of space and time that their physical bodies experience–a virtual alternate universe.  Will they find it difficult to relate, separated by fifty years of experiences?   Will they get bored in this universe?  Then again, what kind of a life was Yorkie really living as a closeted young adult trapped in the body of a catatonic quadriplegic -or- Kelly waiting to die to, ironically, seek relief from harsh realities–abandoning rather than confronting her fear of attachment, twice?  If we were talking about two people in the living world, my answer would be: Is it any of our god damned business?

And perhaps that’s the point that “San Junipero” drives home more cleverly than any LGBT romance I’ve seen to date.  Mainstream attempts to tackle LGBT issues over-sexualize the story, particularly with regard to women’s same sex relationships as if they exist solely in service to the male gaze.  On the other hand, within the community, story after story emphasizes victimization at the hands of our homophobic culture.  We never see Yorkie’s parents and we never once are presented with a version of Kelly and Yorkie made to satisfy the egos of male broadcast network executives.  This is Yorkie and Kelly’s slow dance; naught else matters.

There’s a scene at the Quagmire, another bar in San Junipero where full-timers go to mosh, to fight, to push extremes in a feeble attempt to try to feel anything.  When Yorkie’s searching in vain for Kelly who seems to have fallen off the face of the server, one of Kelly’s exes suggests trying other time periods.  If I had to guess, I’d say Kelly’s daughter was born in the 00’s.  Why did he help Yorkie?  It’s not clearly established, but it hints that Wes (Gavin Stenhouse) realizes what all the Red Pillers, MRA and PUA types don’t.  It’s not about you.

Then why, my wife wondered, is there an overwhelming response from men shipping Yorkie and Kelly’s romance as it’s presented?  The space-and-time-crossed lovers aren’t even heavily fleshed out as characters.  We know nothing about them outside of this story.  SIX FEET UNDER took six seasons to build our relationship with the characters to a point that made the series finale so devastating.  How the hell does Brooker manage this in a single episode?  That’s where the 80’s comes in.

Albeit anecdotal, I’d surmise that a survey of male Gen X’ers and Millennials would single out the 80’s as the decade for which we feel the greatest degree of nostalgia.  Fans of BLACK MIRROR have commented on how fantastic the soundtrack is, how many nods and winks there are—”Living in a Box”, The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma”.  But there’s something deeply philosophical at work underneath the retro trivia:  some are too young to know that the upbeat tone of new wave and pop was our form of escapism from the realities of the Cold War, de-industrialization and mounting national debt–hurdles no child wants to have to deal with.  It’s hard enough finding your identity and learning to be comfortable with it.

And here we are.  Millennials are searching for that same escape, as the first generation to be poorer and less educated than their predecessors.  One by one our heroes fell over the course of the two decades hence: Freddie, MJ, Bowie, Prince whose party anthem was, presciently, a polemic about nuclear armageddon.  The punchline: Donald Trump is running for president.

Through these brief interactions of our story’s heroes, we’re transported back to childhood (a recurring device in film; poignantly revisited in FIELD OF DREAMS during James Earl Jones’ baseball monologue that isn’t really about baseball).  In youth, our senses are more raw: Crushes hit us intensely; one song can save or destroy you.  Adolescence is the place where our memories pop, where colors and sounds play the loudest. It’s the place we all go to when we long to feel again.

That’s why we get Kelly and Yorkie.  If the mundane cynicism of adulthood is a Quagmire, Tucker’s (Flynn’s?) is the escape.  Fuck the apocalypse.  Down the blue pill, throw on your Vans or slouch boots and party like it’s 1999.  Y2K forever…

 

Suicide Squad

© 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC

(L-R) WILL SMITH as Deadshot and MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “SUICIDE SQUAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

SUICIDE SQUAD, written and directed by David Ayer, isn’t even a mess.  It aspires to be at least that organized.  It doesn’t fall apart, because it was never together.  In the disjointed narrative, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits Task Force X, a group of wanton, irredeemable criminals, to combat the menace of Batman and Superman—seen as vigilantes by a distrustful (and blindingly ignorant) public.  The premise makes little sense regardless of one’s familiarity with the DC Comics paper or celluloid franchises, not because one can’t conceive of a world in which the actions of an individual can be spun any which way by media conglomerates (you know, like Time Warner, which owns both Warner Bros. and Rottentomatoes).  Neither BATMAN V. SUPERMAN nor this film walk us there, logically.  We, as the audience, still like Superman and Batman, in spite of Zack Snyder’s relentless attempts to repackage them as really bad dudes.

This is the sort of movie where the writer/director gathers a bunch of stereotypes, throws them in a blender and has somebody say “I guess we’re some kind of…” and quote the title.  Yes, really.  Will Smith is the someone.  As Deadshot he’s the black-father-who-does-bad-things-for-a-living and has a daughter whom he placates with empty promises.  Jai Courtney, whom Nick Schager tweeted was only the tenth worst thing about this film, is a rowdy Australian with a boomerang (the first zero-dimensional character I’ve ever seen).  Katana (Karen Fukuhara) recycles Lady Vengeance and every other violence porn flick to come out of Asia, a character written with idiotic solemnity unlike Tarantino’s pastiches of the genre.  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is Killer Croc, walking with a swagger in a hoodie, he talks in a hodgepodge of Cajun accent and urban slang—visual code-within-code for “thug”.  Shouldn’t he be Killer Gator? Never mind.  The flame-shooting Diablo (Jay Hernandez), covered head to toe in gang tattoos, is how I think Donald Trump’s supporters picture every member of La Raza.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

What presence Jared Leto’s unctuous Joker barely has is a shabby riff off Heath Ledger’s iconic performance punctuated by a sort of Vaudevillian gangster cross between Jimmy Durante and James Cagney.  He’s not terrifying or comical, maybe a little sexually confused. But I can’t really tell, because he’s out-acted by gratuitous shots of former psychologist Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) ass in a costume that Debbie Harry wore better.  In Ayer’s film, Quinn’s love for Joker is a case of Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s carried with the kind of tone-deafness that Stephenie Meyer has for psychologically abusive relationships.

The only moderately interesting character is Enchantress, a centuries-old deity that inhabits the body of June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an early hire into Task Force X.  Waller argues each of these “metahumans” is controllable but for that ever-present possibility of misplacing the kryptonite.  As with many infinitely-powerful, multi-dimensional beings who can span the chasm of space, time and reality, instead of doing something truly fascinating, Enchantress chooses to create a garbage vortex to destroy humanity for locking her up—Gozer the Gozarian much?  Apropos, Enchantress’ appearance shifts from grungy goddess of the underworld to Miss Teen USA with the vaseline scowl.  Revenge has seldom tasted so boring.

All of this is punctuated by such a dearth of visual style, haphazard editing and visual cacophony even Michael Bay must be wondering how cinema sunk so low.  Probably every rock ballad of the 1960s is played, back to back, to distract us from the pictorial spatter buoyed only by the performances of Robbie and Smith.   Even so, how can you call them a suicide squad when, like every other “save the world” action bluff, nothing of consequence is sacrificed?  The Batmobile, seen briefly chasing after Joker and Harley, didn’t even lose so much as a wheel…

Star Trek Beyond

© 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. STAR TREK and all related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios, Inc.

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Captain James T. Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment
Photo Credit: Kimberly French

 

STAR TREK BEYOND did everything right.  The story focused on interpersonal relationships of the principals, disrupted with an unexpected crisis which sets a plot in motion involving a villain motivated by the belief that he’s doing the right thing, necessitating the aid of a resourceful escapee (Jayla, a spirited homage to Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in WINTER’S BONE, played by Sofia Boutella).  Everything it does right is also everything STAR TREK BEYOND does wrong.

Directed by Justin Lin, written by Simon Pegg (who plays Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) and Don Jung, the third chapter in the Star Trek reboot opens with a distress call from a stranded vessel lures the crew of the USS Enterprise into a familiar no-win scenario (see Kobayashi Maru): a marooned villain, Krall (Idris Elba), seeks vengeance against Captain Kirk and the United Federation of Planets toward whom he directs his misguided wrath.

At its best, STAR TREK BEYOND adopts the spartan qualities of the 1966 serial which inspired the franchise, balancing between action, tension and character dynamics that produce situational humor naturally leading into catharsis.  At worst, Lin’s first foray into science fiction de-orbits into the baneful territory of fast edits and nauseating camera movements. Poignant moments are set up, but never given a chance to breathe as if the studio’s financiers were constantly pointing at their wristwatches reminding the creative team that time is money.

This is most evident in the film’s climactic confrontation which, aside from being punctuated by the wrong rap song, zigs when it should have zagged.  That is, and without spoiling it, Trek’s strength rested in its life lessons.  It’s been said that Gene Roddenberry was at odds with the militaristic direction in which Nick Meyer took the franchise as he set about depicting, by self-admission, “Horatio Hornblower in space”, i.e. THE WRATH OF KHAN.  This was a reaction to the excessive criticism leveled at STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, mocked for Robert Wise’s pacing (sometimes derided as THE MOTIONLESS PICTURE).

Some readers may feel that TREK’s mottled cinematic history (save for THE VOYAGE HOME) grants clemency to this effort, but that’s perhaps too generous.  Paramount never learned from its mistakes and continued to speculate on “franchise fatigue” when the problem was really narrative weakness.  At the exact moment you think fifty years of experience has finally paid off and the studio that passed on STAR WARS might finally believe in the appeal of redemptive stories, the old “dispatch the villain out the airlock” denouement happens.

Sure, TREK BEYOND is an entertaining ride… But that, and not Cmdr. Sulu’s (John Cho) sexual orientation, is at the center of why the J.J. Abrams-produced reboot runs afoul of the spirit of what STAR TREK was always about: Tackling complex social issues with inventive and diplomatic workarounds.  Relying on violence to captivate audiences has always been the franchise’s Achilles’ heel–before Abrams, and well before Braga and Berman.


Footnote: Some will recall in my INTO DARKNESS review an observation, seemingly prescient in hindsight, comparing the action-obsessive reboot to THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise, the fifth and sixth installments of which were helmed by Justin Lin.  In all fairness to Lin, the film feels distinctively like Pegg and Lin worked very hard to undo the Bob Orci clusterfuck, both on and off-screen.  Studios are notorious for sending “notes” to the creative team… basically edicts from the financial backers that demand changes since they are, after all, footing the bill.  Among those changes, I suspect, is the pivotal ending.  You can even see, in slow motion, the exact moment at which the studio likely forced Lin to change course in favor of playing it safe.  Granted, this is just speculation (or not; Cho revealed they did in fact cut out a kiss between Sulu and his husband) but I encourage Trek fans and newcomers to see it and decide for yourself if I’m on to something. Not for nothing, but Bob Orci, while removed as director, remained on as producer… you know, one of those assholes who sends notes.

Ghostbusters

© 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Erin (Kristen Wiig) comes to talk to Abby (Melissa McCarthy) and Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) at the Paranormal Studies Lab at the Higgin’s Institute in Columbia Pictures’ GHOSTBUSTERS.

 

One step away from earning tenure at Princeton, physics wizard Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is drawn back into one of those inexplicable friendships that drive most buddy comedies.  Her childhood friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), hasn’t given up on their paranormal exploits.  Having enlisted the aid of “nuclear scientist” Jill Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) who constructs gadgets for ghost hunting (something an electrical engineer would do, but never mind), Abby coerces Jill into a trip to a mansion haunted by a Lizzie Borden wannabe.  Zach Woods (Jared from HBO’s Silicon Valley) as a tour guide-slash-charlatan sets up an opening that could go in any direction, but doesn’t.  From here, the film re-treads all the major beats of the original GHOSTBUSTERS (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman), yet even that isn’t where it falls apart.

Written by Kate Dippold (THE HEAT), the screenplay re-creates the Venkman-Spengler-Stanz triad with the Zeddmore stand-in repeating the fifth wheel role thrown to Ernie Hudson (this time Leslie Jones as the token streetwise African-American MTA worker).  That the dialogue is peppered with copious amounts of faux-technobabble seems an unnecessary pre-emptive strike against fringe misogynists.  They’re not the film’s greatest obstacle to success.

Instead of trusting the comedic talents of the principals, director Paul Feig (BRIDESMAIDS, SPY) prematurely dials a lifeline in the form of cameos and nods right on the heels of unfolding the first ecto-terrorist plot I’ve ever seen in cinema.  The instant Bill Murray shows up to tangentially reprise his role as a skeptic, any hope of the film standing on its own merits is lost.  And even still, the core problem lies elsewhere.

It’s not that this go-around regurgitates the spectral introduction, the band getting back together, the token black person, the hearse, the headquarters-on-a-budget, the calculating Mayor and his ambitious sidekick, the containment system that can’t contain, haunted Manhattan, the Fourth Cataclysm (if you’re going to bring that up and leave out the rectification of the Voldrani and the Third Reconciliation of the last of the Maketric supplicants… well, I have no words for you)… It’s the inconsistency of the dialogue, story and editing that leaves me flat.

After the crafty opening haunt at the mansion, the first act plays like an SNL sketch with each of the seasoned players channeling characters that feel too borrowed from earlier material.  When the acting comes off its stilts, the narrative climbs aboard and trundles dutifully through all the transit stops until we arrive, predictably, at a climactic sequence that makes you wonder how Michelin turned down promotional placement in a successful franchise twice.

I almost forgot to tell you that Chris Hemsworth is in this film.  That the film spends a great deal of time dwelling on his dumber-than-styrofoam character because there’s so little confidence in the comedic chops of the four female principals should tell you why I don’t care that Hemsworth is in this film.  Sure, he’s great to look at and jokes abound.  But it leaves me wondering if studios have forgotten who they are trying to please, are trying to please everyone and no one at the same time, or simply don’t care if they please anyone at all.   The film won’t please film purists who believe that GHOSTBUSTERS should never have been remade.  The film won’t please women for whom the fabrication of intelligent banter seems lazy.  The film might please eight to twelve year olds, who will have no knowledge or recollection of the original … begging the question as to why so much time and effort needed to be spent revisiting old territory and paying overspent actors for unnecessary appearances if the likeliest audience for this film doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

The one person at my screening who I can say was truly excited about this entire affair periodically shouted, “WHOYAGONNACALLLLLLL” in a way that telegraphed his blood alcohol content.  And I am convinced that the average eight to twelve year old is more demanding in their tastes.

A parting thought: As I left the theater, my conscience grappled: Is this the future of cinema?  Are we doomed to an endless stream of recycled pictures consisting entirely of reconstituted gristle seasoned with guest appearances (in thirty years can we expect Wiig and co. to make cameos in a rebooted reboot?), so that, like a few theme parks that come to mind, the audience can fork out the gross domestic product of a small country to rent a chair, watch oversaturated colors fly at them (in gimmicky 3D) on an improperly lit projection with uncomfortably loud sound?  I’m trying to think of a witty, Gene Shalit punchline to this… but now I’m just fucking depressed.

The Neon Demon

NEON DEMON. ©2016, Broad Green Pictures.

ELLE FANNING as Jesse in Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON.

 

Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s elegy to the 80’s riffs endlessly off the visuals of better directors (DePalma, Mann, Cronenberg, Lynch) while succumbing to its own conceits.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, the typical naif in a sun dress and braids, telegraphing her ingenue-off-the-bus status to her fellow models—clearly L.A. natives in their bodices, skin-tight leather jeans and Aviators.  The joke played best in Verhoeven’s SHOWGIRLS, in which Elizabeth Berkeley arrives in Las Vegas, a wide-eyed optimist from Bumblefuck, U.S.A., leeches off the sweetest (read: dumbest) boy in town, and climbs to the top of the entertainment world ladder.   The genius of filmmakers like Verhoeven and DePalma was that one could never quite tell whether they were in on the joke or not.   Where’s Kyle MacLachlan when you need him to spell it out?*

Jesse befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), whose unrequited attraction veers the plot into manufactured unease as a setup for a tonal and narrative shift that makes no sense.   Absent is the necessary connective tissue walking us logically from Ruby’s ill-timed come ons to her misguided turn.  Instead, we get a disjointed series of vignettes that tell a less coherent story than 117 minutes of Human League, DEVO and Talking Heads music videos spliced together indiscriminately.  There was a great opportunity for Refn to take notes from DRESSED TO KILL (De Palma) and make a bolder statement about sexuality, gender identity and power, but instead he opts for the more worn-out trope of the has-been’s revenge.  The has-been, Sarah (Abbey Lee), and her protege, Gigi (Bella Heathcote), engage in psychological warfare with Jesse.  Undeterred, Jesse becomes Queen of the Plastics—errr, the new hot commodity.

Verhoeven had the sense to toy with the sexual tension between Gina Gershon’s Cristal Connors and Berkeley’s Nomi Malone, but Refn plays it straight.  It’s fine that this turns it into black comedy akin to Mary Harron and Gwen Turner’s AMERICAN PSYCHO, but when a filmmaker imagines himself and his work to be high-minded “events”, evinced by the aura and awe manufactured through NEON DEMON’S publicity campaigns, it’s awfully pedestrian of him to reduce the story to a pissing match with less depth than the feud between Regina George and Cady Heron in MEAN GIRLS.  In MEAN GIRLS and SHOWGIRLS, both approach the macabre humor of PSYCHO—Regina gets hit by a bus, Cristal gets thrown down a flight of stairs.  An empty pool in Los Angeles?  Why not just toss her off the U.S. Bank Tower with a faulty wing suit so she can crash face-first into the side of the Bonaventure?  If you’re going to mock your own art flick with a Los Angeles cliché…

Refn is too engrossed in false color nostalgia, replicating the moods and palettes of the 80s, like Panos Cosmatos (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW) or the retro-wave hipster bands of late–copying the sound and fashion, but never bothering to listen to the lyrics.


* Keanu Reeves cast against type as a child predator seems less motivated by his acting chops—spanning the entire gamut of blank—than an attempt to update the joke hoping Millennials might get it. After the fact, reading scads of reviews and comments comparing this film to BLACK SWAN (2010), both the story and the subtext (if any) are completely lost on them anyway. So too is a casting stunt meant to contrast with a diametrically-opposed role ten years older than Aronofsky’s SHOWGIRLS-meets-FIGHT CLUB on crazy pills.

 

Captain America: Civil War

© Walt Disney Pictures Studios. All rights Reserved.

Chris Evans as Captain America and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. © Walt Disney Pictures Studios. All rights Reserved.

 

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

-Samuel Johnson, 7 April 1775

 

In the 1950s, as declassified documents reveal, the Central Intelligence Agency created Project MKUltra, an attempt at using conditioning/interrogation techniques in combination with psychotropics (LSD) for mind control of subjects.  Uncovering moles was the Agency’s initial goal.  The program had considerable participation from numerous institutions and prestigious universities and, along with the Tuskegee Experiment and radiation exposure tests on Native American subjects associated with the Manhattan Project, the operation remains one of America’s darkest spots.

Albeit a failure, MKUltra continued on through the 1970s.  Its test subjects included counterculture author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and Ted Kaczynski—the Unabomber.  Ted Kaczynski was a UC Berkeley professor until he inexplicably quit in 1969, by all accounts then a normal individual until he was subjected to a controversial study conducted by Henry Murray.  Kacyznski is serving eight consecutive life sentences at a SUPERMAX prison for sixteen bombings committed between 1978 and 1995.   In 2010, ten Russian sleeper agents were arrested in the United States and exchanged in a prisoner swap.  The Cold War, it seems, never ended.

Following the narrative set in motion by CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, its title a reference to the Winter Soldier hearings and Paine’s quote in The American Crisis, the Avengers are met with fierce criticism in the wake of collateral damage in Lagos.  Wakandan aid workers in a nearby office building withstood an explosion the superheroes attempted to contain while in pursuit of a terrorist stealing a biological weapon.  Wakanda, for those new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a fictional African nation, home to the precious vibranium ore—also fictional, a virtually indestructible material from which Captain America’s shield is made.

Out of this catastrophe, the jurisprudence of the Avengers is questioned by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). They’re effectively under house arrest until the Sokovia Accords which will place their oversight in the hands of the United Nations.  A prime suspect at the center of foul play in the signing of the Accords is Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), a former instrument of the Cold War, not unlike those test subjects and sleeper agents—literally thawed out and “activated” by secret codes to assassinate targets  The embers of Barnes’ friendship with Steve Rogers/Captain America ignite a rift between two camps within the Avengers—those wary of their unchecked power and those skeptical of oversight by governments easily infiltrated by HYDRA, the Nazi splinter faction corrupting nations since World War II.

Several of the characters are placed in a moral dilemma.  The opening scene’s destruction comes at the hands of Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, an “enhanced” individual with special powers; Marvel’s extant licensing agreement with Fox bars overt use of the X-Men trademark.  Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie; watch for a timely Mark Fuhrman reference), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and other superheroes on both sides seem less cocksure of their chosen side (TEAM CAP or TEAM IRONMAN, marketing mirroring the media penchant for polarization).  But the standout is Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther.

The son of Wakanda’s king, Prince T’Challa skirts the Magical Negro trope for his role as the one voice of rational skepticism guiding the principal, and predominately white, characters out of their conundrum—self-inflicted out of a plot-convenient failure to communicate.  However, a pivotal scene I will not spoil, makes T’Challa a leader:  He spares another man similarly consumed by rage, whereas Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) would have killed another.

When directors Joe and Anthony Russo are at their best, inspired by Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR and Ritt’s THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, they dive into character details.  In their previous film,  Black Widow and the titular Captain America bantered about their personal lives, continuing in that vein with a sensitivity absent in other Marvel films.  In CIVIL WAR, we see shards of Bucky’s shattered life—the tattered mattress on the floor of his flophouse room, candy bars strewn atop the refrigerator and a journal with a museum brochure in it.

On the obverse, Sharon Carter (Emily Van Camp) receives short shrift despite a setup in THE WINTER SOLDIER for a solid, thoughtfully crafted role as Agent 13 in Marvel’s clandestine unit, S.H.I.E.L.D.  A shoehorned romance with Captain Rogers plays inappropriately, too soon, and entirely out of character for either of them.  A subplot involving other sleeper agents serves no purpose and meets no end except as a vehicle to further the rift between Stark and Rogers.

The film lacks the grace of THE WINTER SOLDIER which paces its fantasy action and political thriller elements more evenly.  The Russos devote substantial time undoing the incoherent mess Joss Whedon left behind in AGE OF ULTRON—even working in a joke about Clint Barton’s (Renner) family life and Tony’s inexplicable un-retirement.

So busy juggling character introductions and story setups, the story never really resolves its own central thesis: whether or not the Avengers, save for Rogers, can learn to fight for something beyond themselves and each other.  Once they take sides after Lagos, subsequent battles occur in remote or vacant locales presenting no moral quandary.  Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has a funny scene that might turn horrifying if the airport weren’t conveniently evacuated.

Saddled with the responsibility of introducing numerous characters and threads leading into the climactic INFINITY WARS, CIVIL WAR is effective yet falls short of brilliance, were it instead focused narrowly on rebuilding the fragments of Bucky and Steve’s friendship.  They’ve 70 years of catching up to do and the film cannot spare them a single moment, save for a glance of solidarity.  Why, when theirs is the saddest story of all?  Bucky was enlisted twice: First, as Steve’s friend and protector.  Then drafted into service, made a prisoner of war, tortured and conditioned to commit horrible atrocities.  Steve is still the little scrapper from Brooklyn who lied to enlist, so he could combat atrocities and the bullies who commit them. Bucky is a victim in recovery, fighting other people’s battles his entire life.  Like SSgt. William James in THE HURT LOCKER, Steve is no Sunshine Patriot.  For him, the war never ends.