Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Beauty and Brilliance of 'Master of None'

*Spoilers will follow for all of Master of None.*

As pretty much all of my friends know, it's hard to get me to watch a TV show. Since I'm known by almost everyone as the movie guy, people often ask me if I've seen a certain TV show or recommend others for me to watch. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard "You've never watched Game of Thrones?!?!" or "What do you mean you haven't seen Breaking Bad!!" Television is a massive time commitment and in between watching endless new releases at the movie theater and reviewing them here, it's hard for me to sit down and watch a lengthy show. Hell, I often miss out on the shows that I even personally want to watch, such as Season 2 of Netflix's Narcos or Season 3 of Fargo (I plan on binging the rest of these soon). I watch South Park and Family Guy to kill time, but I couldn't tell you a damn thing about Orange is the New Black or The Sopranos. But there's something about the current direction of television that is pulling me closer and closer to the medium, and I think that the line between film and TV is being blurred. After all, what do you consider Stranger Things to be? Is it television or is it a 6 hour film? I would lean towards the latter, and I think that's one of the main reasons for its success.

While HBO and FX have been on the front lines of posing the question of "What is television?" no other studio has done as much to change the perception of what episodic TV can be as Netflix. While they're currently engaged in a bitter war against the major Hollywood film studios, I think it's safe to say that they already beat the TV networks- ABC, NBC, and CBS don't stand a chance from a production standpoint. They're producing stuff that nobody else would touch, and they're crafting shows with seasons that stand on their own, all available on one day and easy to digest in one sitting as one story. They've crafted a creative monopoly on original storytelling, and due to their immense financial capabilities, they're able to take a chance on shows and filmmakers that wouldn't stand a chance in the traditional realm. Netflix is doing incredible work, and each day I'm more and more of a fan of what they're doing.

Which brings me to the real topic of this article. Ever since the first season of the show premiered in late 2015, I've been hearing about Master of None. A teacher recommended it to me initially, and I never got around to watching it. But as Season 2 rolled around in May of this year, the excitement grew to a fever pitch. Everyone started telling me that I simply had to check it out, and I heard enough things that piqued my interest that I was willing to give it a shot. Each season is relatively short, which made it easy for me to find time to watch it in this insanely busy month. But I'll be honest- it didn't hook me initially. The first half of Season 1 has strong moments that introduce the aesthetic and comedic qualities of the show, but it contains some of the weaker stand-alone episodes. But then around Episode 6, something changes. And I was in.

When I say that Master of None (especially Season 2) is the best thing I've seen all year, I don't mean it lightly. This show is straight-up incredible, and anybody who isn't watching it is doing themselves a major disservice (I've become the thing I once feared the most). It's breathtakingly cinematic, hopelessly romantic, incredibly smart, and endlessly humorous- every adjective that you throw at it, Master of None fits the bill. Aziz Ansari has crafted a show of compelling contradictions, and I can't say enough about the fact that it's the most impressive comedic television I've ever seen from a production standpoint. A masterful blend of episodic genius and storytelling bliss, Master of None is the kind of instantly iconic piece of cinema (yes, cinema) that I just can't stop thinking about. So let's break it down, shall we?

The plot is simple. Dev (Ansari) is a struggling actor living in New York, and he and his friends- Arnold (Eric Wareheim), Denise (Lena Waithe), and Brian (Kelvin Yu)- have a variety of experiences with modern culture and hot-button topics like dating, sexuality, and family life. The first season of Master of None is certainly inferior to the second season, but it establishes the characters and the setting, and it builds up a head of steam that really pays off as the show moves forward. The initial five episodes contain some gems and some other episodes that are less satisfying. "Plan B" is a good pilot that introduces the conversational feel of the show and Ansari's distinct sense of humor, "Parents" is an incredibly smart and compelling look at generational and cultural differences, and even "The Other Man" has its charms, as well as a pair of wonderful guest performances from Claire Danes and Noah Emmerich.

Right from the start, Ansari establishes an auteur visual stamp that is consistently maintained throughout the entire run of the show. Master of None's aspect ratio is 2.35:1 as opposed to the 1.78:1 used by most television shows, a quality that separates it from the rest of the comedic pack. In addition, the cinematography by Mark Schwartzbard is never anything less than stunning, while each director also manages to put their own touch on the show. Master of None is undeniably beautiful, and its sumptuous visuals make it feel cinematic in the best possible way. But the first season really doesn't click into place until Episode 6, when it becomes clear that Master of None isn't just an extremely well made sitcom- it's a full-blown romantic comedy. For all of the show's impressive production values, it really settles into a groove when it becomes a show about the perils and pleasures of modern romance. Rachel, played by Noel Wells, is introduced in the very first episode as part of an awkward sexual encounter, but she really becomes a factor in the second half of the season. And that's when the show clicked for me.

Wells is a tremendously gifted actress and Rachel is a character who is easy to love. "Nashville," directed by Ansari himself, was the turning point for me and the exact moment when I fell head over heels in love with the show. It's such an effortlessly funny, genuine piece of romantic television, and there's something to be said for the rewards of leaving the New York setting. "Nashville" has a documentary-like feel, and the relationship between Dev and Rachel is organic and heartfelt in the best possible way. Ansari has said that Season 1 is about not knowing what you want, while Season 2 is about wanting what you can't have, and I think that contrast plays really well in terms of the relationships as well. Dev and Rachel have a very natural, realistic relationship, one with flaws, fights, and doubts. Season 2's romance is almost pure fantasy, a shimmering, heart-stopping display of love that exists as the kind of romance that exists only in our wildest dreams.

It's interesting to watch Master of None evolve over the course of its 20 episodes, and while I think Season 2 is undoubtedly superior to its predecessor, there's no doubt that I was incredibly invested in the romance between Dev and Rachel in the latter half of Season 1. After a couple of engaging episodes from director Lynn Shelton that involve gender dynamics and our relationship with elders, Master of None takes its most experimental step forward with "Mornings," directed by supporting star Eric Wareheim. Consisting entirely of a series of scenes involving Dev and Rachel's morning routines, you see their cutest moments, their biggest fights, and the fundamental rift in their relationship that might not be solved. Master of None is great at dealing with social issues and Millenial problems, but the show is at its best when it steps outside of its comfort zone and experiments with structure, style, and cinematic composition. "Nashville" is the first step, but "Mornings" really sets the tone for the next season. The penultimate episode leads into a finale (simply titled "Finale") that is equally melancholy and hopeful, an odd combination that leaves us on a bit of a cliff-hanger. From the start, Master of None establishes itself as a show where drama is just as important as comedy, but the final two episodes of Season 1 stand as a shift in Ansari's approach. The show is as dramatically affecting as it is comically relevant, and the final episodes of Season 1 feature as much beautiful heartache as anything I've seen on television.

And then Season 2 comes and blows it all away. The finale of Season 1 ends with Dev on a plane to Italy, hoping to learn how to make pasta from the best chefs in the world. His relationship with Rachel has ended on a rather surprising note, and he doesn't seem to have much left to give the acting world either. So on a whim, he packs his bags, gets on a plane, and moves to Modena. Season 2 is nothing short of remarkable, and it achieves the balance that Ansari attempted to master in Season 1. It's a huge artistic step forward for the show, so perfect and so satisfying that I don't even know if Season 3 would be worth it. In just 10 short episodes, we're treated to a black-and-white spectacle inspired by classic Italian cinema, a love story for the ages, two stand-alone episodes that feel like the pinnacle of Ansari's powers of social analysis, and so much more. Master of None had a clear vision in its first season, but the second season feels truly visionary.

The first two episodes of the season- "The Thief" and "Le Nozze"- both take place in Italy, and like I said with "Nashville" in Season 1, there's something to be said for how impressive this show can be when it leaves the New York setting. There has been much debate about the usefulness of these two episodes in the scheme of the season, and I honestly can't say that I understand why. "The Thief" is vital in regards to introducing the new players of the season, specifically Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), undoubtedly the most integral new character. But it's also just a fun episode of the show- it does what Master of None does best, but with an artistic flair. It wears its influences on its sleeve, and it tells a compelling story of Dev's life after Rachel. This is a theme that is expanded upon in "Le Nozze," which features a lush and sumptuous trip through the Italian countryside with Arnold. If anything, these first two episodes feel like the necessary conclusion to Season 1- after Dev and Rachel's abrupt break-up, his trip to Italy is really his recovery in a way.

But even as Master of None doubles down on its serialized plot, it also features some of the best individual episodes of the entire show. Much has been said about "Thanksgiving," and I'm not sure there's anything I can say that others haven't already conveyed in much better thinkpieces. The episode chronicles Denise's process of coming out as a gay black woman over the series of several holiday dinners, and it's a lovely, funny, poignant piece of work that does in 35 minutes what most movies can't do in more than double that time. In addition, the Alan Yang-directed "New York, I Love You" steps away from the show's main cast of characters to depict a variety of New Yorkers of diverse backgrounds in their daily lives. There's much to be said about how Master of None depicts minority communities and gives a platform to voices that are often ignored by Hollywood, and these two episodes are the best example of this. "New York, I Love You" features a stretch with a deaf woman (Treshelle Edmond) that is completely silent, an immersive experience that manages to be witty, heartfelt, and downright revolutionary. At times, it feels like Master of None is practically showing off, but everything it does is so pure and so genuine that you can't help but love it.

In addition, "First Date" feels like Wareheim's way of topping "Mornings," as he showcases Dev on a variety of first dates that range from mediocre to straight-up horrifying. It's clear that Ansari finds a lot to laugh at when it comes to modern dating culture, and the complex, intricate structure of "First Date" makes for the best satire of the topic yet. Many of the episodes in Season 2 hone in on themes explored in Season 1, such as "Religion," an episode that feels like a direct follow-up to "Parents." It's a quick episode, but an essential one, and it gives another opportunity for Shoukath and Fatima Ansari (Aziz's real parents, who also play Dev's parents on the show) to show off their comedic chops. In every way, Ansari improves on what he did in Season 1, blending humor, an effortless sense of diversity and inclusion, and unrelenting empathy to a show that is as beautiful as anything on television or in theaters.

But what really sets Season 2 apart is the heartbreaking romance at its core, the plot thread that continues throughout the entire 10 episode run. Dev meets Francesca in Italy, and it quickly becomes apparent that he has some serious feelings for her. There's only one small problem- she's engaged to marry Pino (Riccardo Scarmarcio), her longtime boyfriend from Modena. That doesn't stop Dev and Francesca from hanging out as friends, and in "The Dinner Party," they even go together to a swanky event hosted by Chef Jeff (Bobby Cannavale), a character who represents one of the few true missteps of Season 2. "The Dinner Party" is a solid episode that turns into a great one thanks to a breathtaking shot, one that stands alongside the final image of James Mangold's Logan as one of the best shots of the year. On an Uber ride home, Dev drops Francesca off at her hotel, quietly saying goodnight with a hug and not even the smallest hint of a kiss or romantic moment. Dev motions for the driver to go, and as Soft Cell's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" kicks in, the camera lingers on him. He sits, he looks around, he reads a text from Francesca, he puts his face in his hands- and the camera stays, watching. There's nothing flashy about it, but it's a scene that says so much, and it's a moment that conveys so much that I've felt in my own personal life. It's a shattering moment, a scene so simple that it becomes revolutionary. It's everything great about Master of None in one take.

And then we reach the final two episodes, both directed by Ansari, that represent this show and this unique cinematic auteur at their absolute best. While I've emphasized the romantic elements of Master of None before, the conclusion to Season 2 is when the show goes from being a romantic comedy to a full-on romance. Oh, and what a blissful, tragic romance it is. Dev and Francesca's relationship goes down some beautiful paths, especially in "Amarsi Un Po," the penultimate chapter that stands as the longest episode in the show's history. They do all the things that couples do, but there's this line in the sand that contributes to the tension of the entire episode. It's a piece of cinematic television full of gorgeously realized moments, such as a playfully sensual dance set to "Guarda come dondolo" and a sleepover during a dangerous blizzard. Each scene feels sweeping and grand, and the fact that you love these characters so much only increases the emotion and the passion. The episode ends on a quietly tragic moment that lays everything on the table, and I genuinely mean it when I say that "Amarsi Un Po" is a straight-up masterpiece.

The finale, entitled "Buona Notte," is more flawed, mostly due to a revelation about Chef Jeff that breaks up some of the momentum established by the ninth episode. But it's still a tremendous finale, one that features a moment of romantic intrigue and tension that is as jaw-dropping as anything I've seen. Forget La La Land- this is the cinematic romance I've been waiting for. Master of None ends on a decidedly ambiguous note, one that feels necessary given the nature of Dev and Francesca's relationship. Master of None is proud to be inspired by so many excellent pieces of cinema, and the ending feels like a subtle nod to Mike Nichols' The Graduate, where the nature of passion and hindsight are called into question. Can you fall in love with someone after knowing them for only a month? Will you be happy with that choice? Master of None's final image doesn't give any answers, but the questions it manages to raise are vital and endlessly compelling.

Master of None is a sneakily profound show. It doesn't seem like a must-watch, the kind of enormously affecting piece of work that you simply have to see. But I believe that Ansari has crafted something that deserves to be considered as one of the best shows that television has to offer. It's a near-perfect blend of episodic genius and romantic serialization, and it's a show that has matured and evolved over time. Master of None benefits from Ansari's autobiographical touch, but you can feel the impact of almost everyone who is involved with the production. Wareheim, Yang, Waithe, Wells, Mastronardi- everyone is absolutely essential in bringing this show to vivid life. Master of None comes from a place of genuine emotion, whether it's passion, heartbreak, sadness, and everything in between. It's so much more than just another comedy, and Ansari is so much more than another comedian attempting to replicate Woody Allen. This show hit me on a deep level, and I can't remember the last time I was so impacted by something.

Master of None defies description. It's a gorgeously shot masterwork of filmmaking from a crew of extremely talented people, it's an achingly personal work of art from a true genius, and it's a sensual piece of romantic cinema that feels truly iconic. It experiments, it mess with style and genre, and it never stays in its comfort zone. It's a daring, remarkable work that constantly reinvents itself in fresh new ways, and it's so engaging and innovative that I almost can't believe that it exists. If you're like me and resisted watching this show for the longest time, it's time to rectify that mistake. Master of None will take your breath away. It's that good.

Images courtesy of Netflix

'Transformers: The Last Knight' review

Whether I'm proud of this fact or not, the Transformers saga was an essential part of my growth as a movie fan. Along with Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films and Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Michael Bay's Transformers movies were a factor in my movie-going life at a time when spectacle was valued above all else, and for several years I counted the original 2007 flick as my favorite film of all time. No joke. And to be honest, that is still a pretty good movie- it has a decent story, some explosively fun action, and an impressive directorial stamp from Bay. But in the years since that breakout hit, the Transformers series has been on a roller-coaster ride of Bayhem. 2009's Revenge of the Fallen was almost astonishingly idiotic, saddled with a script thrown together during the writer's strike, while 2011's Dark of the Moon got by thanks to the awe-inspiring Chicago setpiece that still entertains me to this day.

That was supposed to be the finale of the whole thing, but money talks, and the third chapter walked away with over $1.1 billion worldwide. Three years later, Bay returned with an all-new cast for Age of Extinction, a 165 minute long epic that destroyed more cities and left little to no cultural footprint. The Transformers series had pretty much run its course at that point, but the fourth installment managed to nearly match the third with a box office take of just over $1.1 billion. And so three years later, Bay is back with The Last Knight, which is being billed as the final chapter (yeah, right). Mark Wahlberg is back and there are more robots and Optimus Prime is a bad guy and there's explosions and......you know what, who even cares any more? The Last Knight is staggeringly incoherent- I would call it a feature-length trailer, but unlike something like King Arthur, it doesn't even work as a good trailer. This movie makes no sense, and the fact that it's by far the most boring chapter in the franchise only makes matters worse. Even as a somewhat passionate defender of this series, I can't justify it any longer. The Last Knight is the final nail in the coffin- time for the Autobots to pack up and go home.

Trying to explain the plot of The Last Knight feels like an exercise in futility, but in the hopes of entertaining whoever may read this, I'm going to do my best. This movie opens in the English dark ages, where King Arthur is fighting a war against......I don't know, somebody. They need a weapon to win this battle, and they're relying on Merlin (Stanley Tucci, who also appeared in Age of Extinction in an entirely different role) to save the day. Unfortunately, Merlin isn't a magician- he's just a drunkard who happened to find a crashed alien ship. So yeah, there were Transformers fighting back in the days of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And there's this thing that they had, and it's important for the plot later. Jump to the present day, and America is some kind of weird post-apocalypse. Transformers are being hunted, Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is on the run, and there's a government agency (the TRF) tasked with capturing and/or killing any additional robots, an agency that features former Autobot ally Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel).

Yeager just happens to be running around the ruins of Chicago when a bunch of kids are threatened by both a Decepticon and the TRF. Yeager, Bumblebee, and Izabella (Isabella Moner), a young girl rendered homeless by the Battle of Chicago, end up escaping to his hideout in South Dakota, where the remaining Autobots are hiding out. Yeager will be called back into action by Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), a member of a secret society who claims to know the hidden history of Transformers on Earth. Along with Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), the last of the direct descendants of Merlin himself, Yeager will have to fulfill his destiny in the fight for humanity's survival. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime (who, if you'll recall, left Earth at the end of Age of Extinction to find his creator) is floating in space, only to be discovered by his creator, Quintessa. She has an evil plan to destroy Earth and begin the rebirth of Cybertron, a plan that requires turning Optimus Prime into Nemesis Prime. Things happen, the explosions are loud, the battles are massive, nothing makes sense, the whole thing slowly fades into oblivion. Welcome to The Last Knight.

Look, even though I've always considered myself to be a Transformers fan, I'm not gonna pretend that these movies haven't always been trash. I think the original does resemble an actual film, one with characters, a plot, and a clear narrative arc, but none of the sequels have followed up on that example. But for all of their convoluted stories, juvenile humor, and outrageous action scenes, the sequels have always been varying degrees of fun. Stupid, but also enjoyable. They tap into this childlike thirst for mayhem, and nobody films cinematic chaos quite like Michael Bay. People trash him a lot, but he's unquestionably a filmmaker with a vision, even if that vision is to metaphorically throw a grenade on the screen and watch what happens. The last three Transformers movies haven't made much sense, but my threshold for quality with these movies is pretty low- if you deliver the Bayhem, I'm happy.

But what happens when the insanity stops feeling inspired? What happens when even Bay seems bored by the spectacle he's putting together? Well, The Last Knight happens. There was a point for every filmgoer where the Transformers franchise jumped the shark. For some, it was with Revenge of the Fallen, when John Turturro's Agent Simmons climbed a pyramid only to find an alien's scrotum waiting for him. For others, it was Age of Extinction, a nearly 3 hour experiment in excess that had really no good reason to exist. But I stuck with it- my expectations were in the toilet, and I still felt that Bay was delivering exactly what I wanted from this franchise. But even with the astronomically low bar I have mentally set for the Transformers movies, The Last Knight doesn't even come close to hitting it. The fifth chapter in the saga of the Autobots and the Decepticons barely resembles an actual film, as narrative coherence has been thrown out the window in favor of lightning fast pacing and nonsensical action sequences. The Last Knight is certainly an experience, one that beats you and punishes you into submission (and/or exhaustion), but its fatal flaw is that it's almost hopelessly boring.

The human characters have always been secondary to the giant robots in the Transformers universe, but the level to which they are inconsequential to the plot in The Last Knight is almost shocking. Mark Wahlberg's Cade Yeager at least had something to do in the fourth installment, but here, he's laughably inserted into the film as part of a lackadaisical "Chosen One" narrative where he's positioned as the only man on Earth with the bravery and valor of King Arthur. I'm serious, guys. This movie feels like a joke. His love interest, played by Guardians of the Galaxy's Laura Haddock, is even less compelling, and their cinematic romance is absolutely ridiculous. Josh Duhamel is back as Lennox for literally no good reason, Isabella Moner's character drifts in and out of the story with no real consequence, and good lord, what the hell is Anthony Hopkins doing in this movie? Believe it or not, his performance might be the only redeeming quality of this film- it's absolutely insane. There's a scene where Hopkins and Cogman (his robot butler) drive through traffic, with Cogman singing "Move, Bitch, Get Out the Way" over and over. That's this movie in a nutshell. At that point, my brain packed its bags and left the theater.

All of the Transformers movies are centered around some kind of MacGuffin- the Allspark, the Matrix, the Pillars, whatever the hell they were fighting over in Age of Extinction. The Last Knight is no different, but it's frankly astonishing to see how little Bay cares about the basic plot of the movie. Everything in this film feels like it's being played on fast forward, as a never-ending array of exposition is dumped on the audience in between the headache-inducing robot fights. There is no attempt to create a convincing villain, or an engaging plot, or even any kind of storytelling momentum. Bay's movies have always appealed to a base-level cinematic instinct for destruction and chaos, but in The Last Knight, he finds a way to go even lower. He assumes that the audience is coming for the explosions and action scenes, so why the hell would they even need anything else? If you understand what happened in The Last Knight or if you were emotionally invested in any way, more power to you. But I was stunned by the level of incoherence displayed by this fiasco.

And the worst part is that the action isn't even good. Bay reached his action pinnacle with the citywide destruction of Chicago in Dark of the Moon, an hour-long setpiece that stands as one of the most impressive battle scenes I've ever witnessed. That third film was supposed to be Bay's last with the Transformers franchise, but in the two movies since, he's been foolishly attempting to top himself. He blew up Chicago again as well as Hong Kong with the help of some Dinobots in Age of Extinction, and in The Last Knight, he has Earth and Cybertron practically crash into each other. And it is, without a doubt, one of the most boring things that has happened in this franchise. There's no urgency, no energy. It's entirely predictable and visually dull, and the fact that there's never even a semblance of flow to it makes it that much more unbearable. And just like every other Transformers movie, it ends with a big speech from Optimus Prime about never forsaking the human race. Michael Bay, have mercy on us all.

Maybe The Last Knight isn't worse than any of the other Transformers movies. Maybe I've just grown more cynical. But after making excuses for Michael Bay's disasterpieces for over a decade based on my childlike love for explosions and robots, I can firmly say that I am done with this franchise. I will no longer hold any hope that these films will entertain me in even a surface level way. They have charted a slow evolution into absolute nonsense, and The Last Knight is the pinnacle of the narrative incoherence of the series. And I think it's time to call it quits. No reboot, no spin-offs, nothing- just let this series die.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D                                              (3.8/10)

Images: Paramount/IMDB

Monday, June 26, 2017

'Rough Night' review

When was the last time we had a great studio comedy? This is the first question that popped into my head after watching Rough Night, one of the most anticipated laugh fests of the summer. In recent months, there's been a serious dearth of pure comedic entertainment- sure, there have been a few films that have made me laugh, but none that necessarily qualify as comedies. In fact, it's been so bad that you have to go all the way back to Sausage Party in August if you're looking for an A-grade studio comedy. But after the disaster of Baywatch, I was hoping that Lucia Aniello's Rough Night would break Hollywood's comedic drought. It was hyped up in many circles for being from the writers of Broad City, it has an incredible cast led by the one-two punch of Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon, and it has a darkly funny concept that seemed to have a good deal of potential. What could go wrong?

Unfortunately for all of us, Hollywood's comic losing streak continues with Rough Night, a film that feels like a major missed opportunity. It's a well made film that fails the most important comedic test- it just isn't that funny. Rough Night drags for two acts before finding a bit of a groove in its final moments, which saves it from being a total and complete misfire. Nonetheless, this is a tough movie to sit through, mainly because it weirdly feels like it's on the cusp of being funny for much of its runtime without actually succeeding at the task of making the audience laugh. Despite a talented crew, a few standout performances, and a slick production quality that feels like a throwback to 80s comedies, Rough Night never manages to be another more than another raunchy disappointment, one that never successfully pulls off its jokes or emotional hook.

In college, Jess (Johansson), Alice (Jillian Bell), Blair (Zoe Kravitz), and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) were the closest of friends. They did everything together, and they believed that they would be best friends forever. Cut to several years later, and that isn't quite the case. They've all gone their separate ways, with Jess currently running for political office in a high-stakes race. But with her marriage to Peter (Paul W. Downs) looming, Alice decides it's time to reunite all of the girls for a big bachelorette weekend in celebration of Jess. The group of friends (along with Kate McKinnon's Pippa, Jess' Australian exchange student friend) take a trip down to Miami, and things get out of hand pretty quickly. Drinks are shared, cocaine is snorted, and the girls end up back at a swanky beachfront estate to cap of the night. Enter the night's entertainment- a male stripper. They have fun for a while, but after a horrific accident, the stripper ends up dead. And it only gets crazier from there.

If you've seen the trailer for this film, you know that's the basic concept. And like all comedies, the plot goes in some unexpected directions that end up being all kinds of insane. Rough Night is at its best when it settles into a formulaic groove, when it blends together the various plot threads and tones into something that resembles an action/comedy. Sure, things get a little more predictable in the final act and the emotional and story beats are pretty familiar, but at least something is working. Rough Night ends on a high note, which is the best that can be said for this movie. But the ride to get there is bumpy at best and excruciating at worst, a comedy with all the pieces in place that can't seem to get any momentum going.

Rough Night is certainly billed as a "dark" comedy, but it never seems to have any desire to commit to that idea. The film revels in debauchery and criminal behavior, and yet the horrible actions of the characters are excused by a few third act revelations that feel like a cop-out. Dark comedies are usually meant to say something about human nature, while also having a satirical bite that comes off as appropriately acidic. Rough Night never even comes close to touching that, operating with this weird improvisational feel for the first act before turning the profoundly stupid and/or irresponsible characters into the heroes of the story in the final moments. The jokes don't land, the film feels aimless, and it's clear that director Lucia Aniello and co-screenwriter Paul W. Downs were stuck between making a light and raunchy comedy and something much darker.

Even the cast can't do much with this material. Scarlett Johansson is one of my favorite actresses, but she doesn't have many opportunities to be funny or interesting in this film. Jess is a bland protagonist, an inconsistent character who's pretty much there to react to everything. Jillian Bell is an incredibly dependable comedic actress, having delivered spectacular turns in both The Night Before and 22 Jump Street. But just like everyone else in this film, she's wasted on a part that doesn't exactly suit her, left to flounder around in the hopes of finding something humorous or resonant. Even Kate McKinnon, the hottest comedy star of the moment, can't do much with a part that feels misguided from the start. The subplot involving Zoe Kravitz and Ilana Glazer is amusing at times, and Paul W. Downs has a breakout supporting turn as Jess' fiance, but I can't help but feel like this talented crew was wasted on a mediocre comedy.

Does Rough Night have engaging moments? Sure, it's not a total fiasco like Baywatch or Why Him? But given the talent and credibility of everyone involved, this has to be chalked up as a bitter disappointment. When a film's strongest attribute is that the conclusion is watchable, you know that's not a good sign. Rough Night is a basic R-rated comedy that wants to be something more subversive and strange, and because of that, it takes forever to settle into any kind of rhythm. Its 101 minute runtime feels like twice that, and it can't conjure up any compelling characters or fresh emotional arcs. It's a letdown- plain and simple.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.8/10)

Images courtesy of Sony

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller exit Lucasfilm's Han Solo project

Hollywood has always seen a culture clash between producers and directors. But in recent years, with the development of cinematic universes and the increasing importance of brands, the divide between the two groups has grown more pronounced. Until now, the primary instance of this conflict could be seen at Marvel Studios, where filmmakers like Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright, and Patty Jenkins fought with Kevin Feige, with the latter two ultimately leaving their respective projects. But even with the fights at Marvel over creative control of projects, we've never seen anything quite like what happened this week. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've undoubtedly heard the news by now- Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the two acclaimed filmmakers best known for their incredible work on The LEGO Movie and the Jump Street series, have left the untitled Young Han Solo movie, a film that was already reportedly 2/3rds complete.

This was revealed late on Tuesday, and it didn't take long for the fallout to kick in. Reactions ranged from utter shock to deep disappointment, and I must admit that I was freaking out just as much as everyone else was. Immediately, all of the trade magazines and websites jumped on the story, each coming up with their own unique version of the events and what exactly went down. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that the focal point of the conflict was between Lord and Miller and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of Empire Strikes Back who's pretty much an expert when it comes to Star Wars. Kasdan believed that Lord and Miller were taking the character in the wrong direction, pushing Han Solo to be more of a "comedic personality" and improvising from Kasdan's script.

On the other hand, Variety reported that Kathleen Kennedy was at the center of the drama between Lucasfilm and the directors, with Lord and Miller expressing surprise at Kennedy's control over the set. Kennedy wasn't a fan of the pair's directing style, and like THR revealed, Kasdan was part of the culture clash as well. Finally, Anthony Breznican at EW (the expert on all things Star Wars) reported his findings in the aftermath of the exit, stating that Lord and Miller's emphasis on comedy ended up leading to disaster. Their improv on set was significantly altering the story, abandoning the grounded tone that Lucasfilm desperately wanted for the film. The divide became more and more pronounced, eventually leading to their firing from the project. Beyond these three main reports, others noted that Lord and Miller refused to collaborate with another director on reshoots, something that Rogue One director Gareth Edwards did with Tony Gilroy. This may have been the deal-breaker for both parties, ultimately leading to their firing.

Shortly after their termination, Ron Howard signed on as the director. He'll finish the rest of production as well as post-production, with Kennedy noting that filming will resume on July 10th. The film is still on track for a May 25, 2018 release date, but this battle is far from over- just wait until the DGA has to figure out who gets credit for directing this movie. As a fan of Howard's Rush, I'm somewhat optimistic that he'll deliver a satisfying project. But the firing of Lord and Miller is troubling for Lucasfilm and for the Star Wars universe as a whole.

Some have said that due to her incredible track record as a producer of blockbuster films, Kathleen Kennedy should not be criticized or blamed for the firing of Lord and Miller. She's the mastermind at Lucasfilm, and she knows what's best for the studio. This is a valid point, but it's also one that ignores some crucial information. Since taking over for George Lucas and establishing herself essentially as the Kevin Feige of the Star Wars Cinematic Universe, Kennedy has displayed a strange sense of confusion when it comes to the overall vision of these films, especially the individual Star Wars Stories. Sure, the trilogy stuff has been fine so far- J.J. Abrams did great work on The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson has apparently gotten along quite well with Kennedy and the Lucasfilm team, and Colin Trevorrow seems set for a smooth ride on Episode IX (more on him soon).

But there's a crucial disconnect when it comes to the Star Wars Stories, and it goes back to one basic question- what are these movies supposed to be? When the standalone idea was announced, the concept was that Kennedy would bring on innovative directors and allow them to make their own personal vision of a Star Wars movie. So if Gareth Edwards wanted to make a war movie and Lord and Miller wanted to make a comedic caper, that was okay because the films were ultimately their personal projects. This has quickly come into conflict with Kennedy's main idea, as she seems to be set on making all of the individual stories fit into the fundamental concept of a Star Wars movie. What that means, I have no idea. But unless I'm wrong and Kennedy is dealing with some real monsters on the set, the goal is the total homogenization of the Star Wars franchise. All of these movies must look and sound the same, they must feel familiar to the audience, and they must be part of a more cohesive universe.

Which is fine! I have no problem with this. Marvel took a while to get to this point (after all, the infamous conflict with Edgar Wright still stings), but their rules are clear now- there's room for auteur projects at Marvel, but you're gonna have to play by the rules. Ava DuVernay walked away, but James Gunn, Taika Waititi, and Ryan Coogler have been able to work within the confines of the system and still deliver films that felt distinct. Marvel has found a sweet spot between studio control and directorial vision, a balance that I think has become really effective. Lucasfilm is nowhere close to this balance, and until Kennedy finds out what she wants, the studio will continue to struggle. In my opinion, it's simple. If Kennedy wants to hire directors with vision, she should step back and let them do their thing. If she wants more control, she should either direct the movies or hire people like Trevorrow. In recent weeks, many in the film world have been calling for Trevorrow's firing from Episode IX after the disastrous reviews for The Book of Henry, which many have lambasted as one of the worst films of all time.

Even as the rare Jurassic World apologist, I'll concede that Trevorrow doesn't have much of a directorial stamp. And in the eyes of Lucasfilm, that's perfect. He's malleable, a yes man who will do whatever Kennedy says. You won't have another Lord and Miller situation here. And if that's what Kennedy wants, she should hire the Trevorrows of the world and expect a cookie cutter product that consistently makes money and entertains the masses. But how long is that sustainable? How long can you keep shelling out the same product and expecting audiences to show up? After all, look at the performance of Transformers: The Last Knight this weekend. Believe it or not, people are growing tired of the same old thing, which is why movies like Logan and Wonder Woman, standalone features that feel remarkably different from the current crop of blockbusters, are doing great at the box office. Kennedy is in some dangerous territory here, and if she's not careful, the future of Star Wars as a major cinematic universe could be in jeopardy.

The Untitled Han Solo Anthology film is still set for a May 25, 2018 release. Star Wars: The Last Jedi will debut on December 15.

Image: Lucasfilm

Saturday, June 24, 2017

'It Comes at Night' review

Maybe it's just because I'm more invested in the cinematic world than I was before, but it seems like low-budget horror movies have seen a real resurgence in the last few years. Films like It Follows, Don't Breathe, and Get Out have transcended the confines of the genre, receiving universal acclaim from critics and masterpiece status from horror fans (and in the case of the latter, widespread commercial success). One of the studios at the forefront of this movement is A24, the indie distributor who has become a recognizable brand and a personal favorite of mine. They released both Jeremy Saulnier's thrillingly gruesome Green Room and Robert Eggers' bone-chilling The Witch in 2016, films that have ultimately become cult classics and critical favorites. After years of horror flicks dominated by jump scares and buckets of blood, it's good to see genuinely tense, frightening films gaining ground.

This year, A24 returns to the genre with It Comes at Night, a film that star Joel Edgerton considers to be in the same class as those other recent "intelligent" horror classics. It's the second film from Trey Edward Shults, who broke out on the festival circuit with Krisha, a family drama with some seriously dark subject matter (still haven't seen it, but probably should). And while It Comes at Night will be receiving a wide release from A24, it's far from a crowd-pleaser. This is a dark, relentlessly frightening film, one where answers are less important than a pervasive atmosphere of dread. It's a slow burn that simmers until it explodes, leaving the audience to watch in horror as they try to piece together exactly what the hell just happened. It's a technically impressive piece of work with a tremendous ensemble cast, and it has some sequences that will shred your nerves. It's the kind of chiller that leaves you with a ton of questions and a feeling that you just can't shake- if you prefer your horror with a healthy dose of ambiguity, this is the movie for you. It Comes at Night has some flaws that keep it from masterpiece status, but it's unquestionably a stunning, brutally engrossing experience.

It Comes at Night opens on a disturbing image of a sick, dying old man. His name is Bud (David Pendelton), and he's the father of Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and the grandfather of Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah's husband and the patriarch of their secluded family, has to make a terrible decision to protect their family- he has to kill Bud. Clad in a gas mask and black rubber gloves, he drags his nearly lifeless body out to the woods, pushed a pillow onto his face, and puts a bullet in his head. Welcome to the world of It Comes at Night, where a sickness can erupt from nowhere and the most extreme precautions must be taken. Something has happened, and this relatively normal family has now holed themselves up in the woods to keep away from the plague that has enveloped the rest of the world.

Paul's house is a safe haven, and he runs a tight ship that keeps everyone in line. But everything will change with the arrival of Will (Christopher Abbott), who breaks into the house thinking that it's abandoned. Tied up to a tree by Paul, Will reveals that he has a wife (Riley Keough) and a son (Griffin Robert Faulkner) nearby who are in desperate need of supplies. Paul is reluctant to let anyone in his home, but his good nature kicks in and he allows Will to bring his family to his fortress. Things go great for a while, and the families find a sense of companionship in each other. But when mysterious things start happening in and around the house, the paranoia increases and the trust issues start to become more apparent. The result is nothing short of nightmarish, as the uneasy relationship turns violent and the dark forces begin to surround Paul's beacon of stability and order.

Let's start with this- I have no idea what happens in It Comes at Night, nor do I exactly have the desire to piece it all together. There's something distinctly menacing about the complete and total ambiguity utilized in this entire film, and while it takes a while to get to the big scares, the surrealism of the whole thing is terrifying. It Comes at Night plays out like a phantasmagoric nightmare, one that leaves you questioning what's real and what's not, chilling you with its atmosphere before delivering a brutally violent kick. It's a descent into madness that plunges you into nerve-shredding darkness, an experience that is as uncomfortable as it is compelling. There's no ending, no satisfying conclusion, and certainly no happiness to be found- it's like a bad dream brought to vivid life on the big screen, with all of the nightmarish imagery and bizarre vagueness that you would expect. If that's not for you, stay far, far away from this one. But if it is your kind of thing, you're in for a gripping ride.

Much of the strength of this film comes from the ensemble, which is as strong as any horror film in recent memory. Joel Edgerton, with his roles in films such as Loving, Midnight Special, and The Gift, has quickly turned into one of my favorite actors, and he's nothing short of tremendous here. Paul seems like a genuinely kind human being pushed to the edge by a horrible situation, and nobody is able to portray that cross between good and evil quite like Edgerton. He's genial but ruthless, smart and generous but cold as ice. He's matched by Christopher Abbott's Will, a pragmatic family man in search of a sense of safety for his wife and daughter. Abbott delivers a terrific performance in the film, blending desperation with determination to great effect. But the standout role comes from Kelvin Harrison Jr., a teenager completely out of his depth in this post-apocalyptic nightmare. Harrison is the emotional crux of the movie, and the sheer confusion and paranoia that his character creates is responsible for so much of the drama. If there's one criticism to be had for the cast, it's that there isn't enough for the women to do- as good as Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are, I feel like their talents could have been better utilized. But that's a minor quibble in what is otherwise a magnificent cast.

The other main strength of It Comes at Night lies in its writer and director- Trey Edward Shults. Pulling off a chamber piece drama like this isn't easy, and to make it this effortlessly frightening and engaging takes a good deal of talent. Shults is exceptionally good at generating both human drama and a complex feeling of dread, a combination that isn't easy to pull off. It Comes at Night initially pulls you in with its characters- it opens with a gut-wrenching moment that clearly has an incredible impact on the people at the center of the story. And from there, Shults allows you to get a feel for how these people think, how they've come to terms with this world, how they've adapted to the measures they have to take to survive. Shults creates an experience that is both psychological and visceral, dreamlike yet grounded in a harsh reality.

And visually, this thing is an absolute knockout. Shults is a meticulous filmmaker who deliberately tries to affect the audience in various ways, whether it's the shifting aspect ratio or the pervasive darkness that poses the threat of danger around every corner. Shults and his team are working in complete harmony- cinematographer Drew Daniels does some of the most beautiful horror work in recent memory, the score by Brian McOmber is properly unnerving, and the house is a masterpiece of production design by Karen Murphy. It Comes at Night is a gorgeously frightening film, and part of what sets it apart from its contemporaries is its commitment to technique and filmmaking bravado. Everything in this film comes together wonderfully, and Shults' vision is clear from the first shot to the haunting finale.

It Comes at Night will undoubtedly be a divisive film, and judging by the "D" Cinemascore, most audience members won't agree with my take on Shults' latest project. But if you're going in with an open mind and hoping to find something decidedly different from the rest of Hollywood's horror output, I think you'll find some very distinct pleasures with this film. It Comes at Night manages to succeed as a complete vision, while also feeling like a short film- and I mean that in a good way. It's a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic parable that builds slowly until it bursts into a feverish rage of violence. It's a chilling, unforgettable concoction, the kind of vividly memorable horror film that deserves recognition. It may take a while to get going, but once it does, It Comes at Night is a deliciously bizarre treat.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.3/10)

Source Quote: EW
Images courtesy of A24

Thursday, June 15, 2017

'The Mummy' review

Dark Universe feels like an exercise in futility, but that won't stop the good people at Universal from trying. Even though the studio already houses a plethora of big ticket franchises like the Fast and Furious series, the Jurassic World films, and the Despicable Me cash cow, in the eyes of studio executives, you can never have enough surefire hits based on recognizable properties. So since the breakout success of The Avengers in 2012, Universal has been trying to replicate the shared universe format with their Classic Monsters, bringing together Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and more for some kind of team-up movie. The whole thing had a serious lack of vision for a while, leading to the disappointing box office of Dracula Untold. But as the stakes grew, Universal decided to lay it all out there. They put together a massive press release last month, announcing stars, movies, and labeling the connected series of films as the "Dark Universe."

In some ways, this showed that the people at Universal were ready to make this work, and in other ways, it came off as desperate. Going into the press release, The Mummy was not tracking well at all, and Universal needed something to get butts in seats. So they scrambled to announce the next steps for Dark Universe, hoping that it would pique audience interest and turn Alex Kurtzman's massive production into a hit. There was a lot riding on this movie from both a commercial and critical perspective, and Universal needed something that would solidify Dark Universe as an important franchise to watch. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case- The Mummy is currently the worst-reviewed film of the summer, and in addition to those widespread pans, it bombed in North America. Worldwide box office was better, but there's no question that the Dark Universe is on shaky ground now. 

I remember when the first trailer for The Mummy played in front of some NFL game last year, and my immediate response was "No, no, no." This looked like everything that I wanted Dark Universe not to be- I wanted a new series of horror movies, not some overblown action fest. As the marketing campaign pushed forward, I eventually settled into the idea that The Mummy would be just another big, expensive summer blockbuster. And on the surface, it didn't look particularly bad- there seemed to be some fun adventure stuff, Tom Cruise is usually pretty reliable, and Universal opted to open the film in the heart of summer, the same spot that led to massive worldwide numbers for Jurassic World. But ultimately, there isn't much beyond the surface level shine of The Mummy, as it quickly reveals itself to be another tedious, soulless film that doesn't really know what the hell it wants to be. Simply put, The Mummy is a very, very bad movie, one that starts Dark Universe with a pathetic whimper.

The Mummy is the story (?) of Nick Morton (Cruise), a soldier who specializes in stealing things and finding antiquities across the globe. As the film opens, Morton and fellow soldier Chris Vail (the ever-reliable Jake Johnson) are in modern day Iraq, searching for some kind of treasure that they believe is in the area. After an air strike saves them as they're being surrounded by insurgent forces, they discover that there's an ancient Egyptian tomb buried beneath the surface. Why is there a tomb from Egypt thousands of miles from the country? With the help of archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), Nick and Chris investigate the tomb and realize that this was really a prison for a force of pure evil. Being the brash moron that he is, Nick accidentally unleashes this evil, setting in motion a series of events that will change his life for the worse.

This ancient evil is known as Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a being of true cruelty whose jealously led to a pact with Set, the god of death. In order to bring Set back into the world of the living, Ahmanet needs a human host. At the last possible minute back in the days of the Pharaoh, she was stopped, leading to her being imprisoned in the top-notch tomb. Now that she's unleashed, she has a new human host in mind, and he just so happens to be the protagonist of the story. But to bring Set to life in the form of Nick, Ahmanet will need some kind of magic dagger, one that was separated during the days of the Crusaders. Ahmanet has the dagger, but she needs the stone to make it work- a stone that is currently under the protection of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) and the good people at Prodigium. Basically monster S.H.I.E.L.D., Prodigium is devoted to guarding our world from the forces that threaten us. The result is a convoluted trek across London with lots of running, shooting, and other dumb things.

The Mummy has lots of pieces in place to be a successful piece of entertainment, but it's one of those films that never coheres into anything. It has a weak script that amazingly required the talents of six writers (David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet are all given screenplay or story credits), an untested director behind the camera, and a lot of complex baggage coming from its position as the Dark Universe kick-off. The result is this weird middle ground between an average dull blockbuster and a misshapen fiasco like Suicide Squad, and the fact that it never firmly falls into either category makes it all the more fascinating. For the most part, The Mummy is just a chore to watch, the kind of movie that is shrill, loud, and constantly trying to amuse the audience to no avail. Honestly, I'm not opposed to the idea of the Dark Universe, but if they want me to stay on board, they're gonna have to do something much more interesting than this.

The Mummy is at its worst when it's actually trying, which is a funny thing to say about a movie. Usually, you want a film to at least make an attempt to be good, right? The problem is that Kurtzman and company don't seem to be content with making a schlock action horror movie- they're consistently striving to do something more. The most egregious error involves the character of Nick Morton, who is bland, unsympathetic, and just plain terrible in every way. So yeah, doesn't it totally make sense to have his character be the emotional core of the movie? Every character choice made by Nick is unbelievably laughable, and the "arc" that Nick takes is downright absurd- it's so bad that not even a bona fide movie star like Tom Cruise can pull it off. The forced emotional beats in The Mummy show an extreme lack of self-awareness on the part of the filmmakers, which is an issue that extends to the rest of the movie.

Tone is another big problem in The Mummy, and it's clear from the first moments that during the course of production, nobody really sat down and figured out what they wanted this movie to be. Is it supposed to be an adventure comedy in the vein of the Brendan Fraser trilogy from the late '90s/early 2000s? There are moments early in the film that certainly are meant to make you laugh. Or is it designed as a straight horror movie, setting the tone for Dark Universe as a scary franchise? Well, there are some moments that are generally pretty frightening. Or is it just a regular action movie, similar to the output from Marvel and other Tom Cruise projects over the years? Those elements are present as well. This leads to the question- what is Dark Universe? Are they trying to replicate Marvel and DC or are they going to do their own thing? Matt Goldberg at Collider seems to think that they're aiming to create their own superhero franchise using these characters, but that goal is never clearly established. The Mummy sees Kurtzman and the screenwriters running around like a chicken with its head cut off, throwing everything at the wall and hoping that some of it sticks.

And lucky for them, some of it does. I actually kinda bought into the whole Prodigium thing, and I like the idea of Russell Crowe being the Nick Fury of Dark Universe, even if the Mr. Hyde stuff is straight-up preposterous. Jake Johnson is actually fairly decent in the movie at times, even if they do this weird American Werewolf in London thing that really doesn't pay off at all. Unfortunately, these fun or engaging elements are stuck in a film that ranges from predictable to haphazard, an uneven blend of recycled garbage with a story that, frankly, sucks. Actors like Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, and Courtney B. Vance are completely wasted, and even the action scenes fail to be distinct or memorable in any significant way. The Mummy is dreadfully messy, featuring lots of running and screaming over the course of its 110 minute runtime that all leads to nowhere. To be quite honest with you, it's difficult to remember anything about it once those credits roll.

As a kick-off for the concept of Dark Universe, The Mummy probably could be worse. As bad as this movie is, I still wanna see more out of some sense of morbid curiosity. But as an actual piece of cinema, The Mummy is about as tedious as a blockbuster can get. It's the kind of soul-sucking "entertainment" that evaporates as soon as you leave the theater, and the fact that this film tries to be more than that is genuinely laughable at times. It's dark, ugly, and stupid, with some of the most distracting 3D I've seen in recent memory. It's been a pretty good summer so far, but it's safe to say that you can skip The Mummy and never even think twice. 

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.6/10)

Poster courtesy of Universal
Images: Coming Soon

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Jessica Chastain in talks to play villain in 'X-Men: Dark Phoenix'

Looking back on it, X-Men: Apocalypse is probably one of the most disappointing films in recent memory. After two films that brought the X-Men franchise back from the dead (Matthew Vaughn's First Class and Bryan Singer's Days of Future Past), the 2016 film ended up being a bizarre hodgepodge of laughably over-the-top nonsense and territory that had been explored far too many times in previous films. It's probably the worst of the X-Men films, and boy, there have been some clunkers in this series. The mutants at Fox have seemingly found their niche with solo genre movies, as films like Deadpool and Logan have garnered critical acclaim and done very well at the box office. With the Merc with a Mouth returning in 2018 and Josh Boone jumping aboard to tackle New Mutants as a horror thriller, you would think that Fox would stick to this formula. Instead, they're continuing the story established by Apocalypse with next year's Dark Phoenix, bringing back many of the same actors for another go-around. And with the November 2, 2018 release date looming, things are kicking into high gear for the latest in the main X-Men saga.

According to The Hollywood Reporter and many other sources, Jessica Chastain is in talks to play the villain in next year's X-Men: Dark Phoenix. This comes shortly after it was confirmed that Simon Kinberg, a prominent producer and writer involved with the superhero films at Fox, will direct Dark Phoenix, with James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Sophie Turner, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all set to reprise their roles. If everything goes as planned, Chastain will play Lilandra, an alien queen who captures the mutant known as Dark Phoenix (Turner) and begins to fight a war with the X-Men. So yeah, Logan this is not. Look, there are a lot of things that I like about what Fox is doing with their superhero films. The solo stuff has been tremendous (Logan is still my #1 film of the year), and I love that they continue to mess with genres and hard R content. That being said, I'm having trouble getting excited for more films with this cast and these characters. It's beginning to feel more and more like Days of Future Past was the peak, and I'm not sure there are many interesting directions left for these characters. Throwing someone like Chastain in there isn't really gonna help matters, considering how poorly Singer and friends utilized Oscar Isaac in the last film. Until I see something tangible to get me excited, I'm gonna remain skeptical about Dark Phoenix.

The film is scheduled to debut on November 2, 2018.

Images: FOX/Europa
Sources: THR/Collider

'Wonder Woman' review

This really goes without saying, but it hasn't exactly been a smooth ride for the DC Extended Universe so far. While there are passionate defenders of every installment in the franchise, the response from the majority of fans and critics has been highly negative. It started in 2013 with Man of Steel, which was supposed to be the big kick-off for the series and the epic return of Superman to the big screen. The result was decidedly more divisive, with fans and critics split by Zack Snyder's brooding, hyper-violent vision of the classic American hero. Reactions to the next two DC films were significantly less divided, as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were almost universally panned. The latter ended up being a fairly strong box office hit for Warner Bros., but there's no question that Batman v Superman should have been a much bigger hit, even with a worldwide total that surpassed $873 million. With all kinds of poor buzz and controversy, many supposed that the DCEU could be dead before it even really began.

But Warner Bros. desperately needs a franchise like this, and they've put all their chips on this series of comic book films. That makes 2017 an incredibly important time for the studio, and DC has two new chapters in theaters this year- Wonder Woman and Justice League. There was almost an unfair amount of pressure on the first solo adventure for the most popular female superhero on the planet, but after a monumental opening weekend that broke records all over the globe, it's safe to say that Wonder Woman has temporarily saved the DCEU. While there's still no clear plan going forward beyond James Wan's Aquaman in late 2018, the fans and the critics have finally united behind a DC movie, and that is a huge step forward for this series. As someone who loves these characters and read the comics as a kid, this is immensely exciting for me. I was ecstatic when I saw that Wonder Woman was receiving positive reactions, and I hope that this represents the new normal for the DCEU.

There's only one question now- does Wonder Woman live up to the buzz? When those first reactions came out, it almost seemed too good to be true. After three movies that ranged from flawed to straight-up disastrous, could the team at DC really turn it around that quickly? The trailers weren't particularly strong for much of the marketing campaign, there were rumors of trouble behind the scenes, and I wasn't a huge fan of Gal Gadot's performance in Dawn of Justice. There was no way this movie could be THAT good, right? Thankfully, despite maintaining skepticism until the very end, I was completely bowled over by Wonder Woman. It is astonishing, thrilling, awe-inspiring superhero cinema, an origin story for the ages that manages to feel both epic and hopeful. It's emotional and touching, funny and clever, beautiful and thoughtful- simply put, it is everything that I have ever wanted from this franchise. Even as a Batman v Superman apologist, this is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the DCEU so far. Believe the hype- Wonder Woman blew me away.

Wonder Woman is the origin story of its titular heroine, telling the tale of how she became the fiercest warrior of the Amazons and fought in World War I. Born on the isolated island of Themiscyra, Diana (Gal Gadot) is trained to be a fearsome warrior from a young age, despite the concerns of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Diana's homeland is comprised entirely of female warriors, and her aunt, General Antiope (Robin Wright), is instructed by Hippolya to train her harder than anyone else on the island. The Queen knows that Diana is destined for greater things, and that her worries are futile. By the time she's a young woman, Diana is strong and fierce, able to even take down Antiope in battle. She's the strongest of the Amazons, and she knows that there's something her mother is hiding.

But her whole world will be shaken by the arrival of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for British intelligence who crash lands on Themiscyra. The German army is following Trevor, and after a fierce battle on the island, they interrogate Trevor about his true purpose. He informs them that the Germans are building a weapon that could devastate humanity and prolong the war, which Diana deduces must be the work of Ares, the god of war. She realizes that Ares must be stopped, making the decision to leave with Steve and fight on the front of the most brutal war in human history. With General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and the woman known best as Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) planning to unleash a weapon that will create insane havoc, Diana and Steve are forced to assemble a ragtag group of soldiers to fight the Germans. In a race against time, the fate of humanity and Diana's destiny hang in the balance of this monumental conflict.

It's kind of amazing that in a cinematic universe that features a Superman movie where an entire city is leveled and a film that unites two of the greatest heroes in American history, the most epic film is also the most straight-forward, old-fashioned origin story. Despite being a superhero film and part of a connected universe, Wonder Woman feels like the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't make anymore- or maybe they never made them at all. It's long and deliberately paced, grand and sweeping storytelling driven by a core cast of likable characters. And perhaps most importantly, Wonder Woman is led by a woman and directed by a woman, resulting in a film that full embraces its feminist message and the spirit of the character. It proves once and for all that representation is important in front of and behind the camera, and it also proves that you don't have to reinvent the wheel to make a great film.

Going back to the days of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, DC films have always been about something (with the exception of Suicide Squad, which isn't even a movie), which is their greatest asset and one of the major reasons why I defended Batman v Superman so much. They've tackled topics like 9/11, the idea of God vs. man, the burden of heroism, and so on, but none of the films in the DCEU have been able to successfully marry themes and entertainment value. Patty Jenkins changes that by making a film that uses its optimism as a weapon and finds its heroine basically fighting the idea of humanity's inherent evil. Wonder Woman does not have Diana view her power as some kind of tedious intergalactic responsibility, but instead as a choice, one that sees her viewing the best in people at all times. The characters fight for what they believe in, and even the ultimate villain has some good points- Wonder Woman manages to have surprisingly complex messages about ideology and worldview, and I love that about it. This is a film that has a lot to think about if you're looking for such subtext, but it never fails to be compelling and enjoyable. Optimism is good, guys. I'm glad Jenkins realizes this.

I wasn't a big fan of Gal Gadot in Batman v Superman. Everyone praised her appearance in the film, but I thought she was entirely superfluous to the plot and kinda disappointing. But from the very first moment that she appeared on screen in this film, I was sold. Gadot is noting short of sensational as Diana Prince, and her Wonder Woman is the first DC hero who actually seems like a genuinely good person. Gadot is a bright, lovable presence in every scene, a character you can empathize with whether she's kicking ass or engaging in a bit of uncomfortable banter with Steve Trevor. Diana's motivation is clear, and her desire to help people and save humanity is....well, heroic. She's fiercely independent, incredibly intelligent, deeply romantic, and consistently kind- in short, she's everything that Wonder Woman should be. She's the perfect role model, and I was in awe of Gadot's performance and this character.

Gadot is boosted by a terrific supporting crew that manages to have a surprising degree of depth, warmth, and charisma. There's no question that Wonder Woman is heavily influenced by Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, an origin story that made use of a historical setting (in that instance World War II) to introduce us to a modern hero. But while The First Avenger is stronger in some aspects, I would argue that the supporting cast in Wonder Woman is leagues more impressive. For starters, Chris Pine is tremendous as Steve Trevor. Pine has already demonstrated that he's an actor with a whole lot of range, but he's so damn impressive here and he creates such an admirable hero that audiences are going to simply adore. The affection that Trevor shows for Diana at every turn is wonderful, and Pine's spirited performance turns the character into an instant favorite. In addition, Diana's platoon, comprised of Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, and Eugene Brave Rock, is filled with very strong characters, each having been marginalized by society in some way, shape, or form and fully empathetic to Diana's fight. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright also crush it on Themiscyra, while Danny Huston and David Thewlis add a bit of prestige to the proceedings. It's just a great ensemble through and through.

But most importantly, Wonder Woman is an expertly crafted piece of blockbuster entertainment. It's well-acted and deals with some worthy themes, but the sheer craft of the filmmaking and the atmosphere of adventurous fun made me downright giddy. Jenkins is a genius behind the camera, creating a film that feels undoubtedly like the work of a true filmmaker, someone with a cinematic eye who can direct everything from dazzling action scenes to moments of romance and subtlety. The World War I scenes are nothing short of brilliant (you've probably already heard plenty about the No Man's Land battle), standing as some of the most distinctly memorable setpieces in recent memory, while even the predictably explosive climatic battle manages to impress in its own way. In addition, Themiscyra is a gorgeous paradise, improved upon by the terrific cinematography from Matthew Jensen. And there's a great score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, one that takes the theme created by Junkie XL and delivers something that matches the tone set by Jenkins. This is an excellent piece of blockbuster filmmaking, one that feels bold and beautiful in its own unique way.

Wonder Woman isn't a perfect movie. It still has to deal with some of the pitfalls of the DCEU, and I can't say I'm much of a fan of the decision to blend superheroes with gods and ancient monsters. In addition, the first act is pretty heavy on the exposition, which gets a little tiresome after a while. But for all of its occasional choppiness, Wonder Woman is a dynamite blockbuster. It's heroic, gorgeous, and entertaining as hell, which is exactly what this cinematic universe should be. Led by the wonderful duo of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, Wonder Woman is a rollicking ride from start to finish, blending jaw-dropping action and thoughtful character work to great effect. It's another excellent superhero film in a year that has been very generous to the genre, and if it's any indication of the future direction of the DCEU, we finally have reason to hope again.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                             (8.6/10)

Images: IMDB/WB

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Incredible first trailer debuts for Ryan Coogler's 'Black Panther'

Marvel has a spotty track record when it comes to working with auteur filmmakers. Sure, James Gunn has been able to pretty much have free reign over the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and it looks like they've let Taika Waititi run wild with Thor: Ragnarok, but this hasn't always been the case. Marvel leader Kevin Feige drove off Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon due to overbearing sequel demands, clashed with Edgar Wright and Patty Jenkins on their respective projects (which led them to make Baby Driver and Wonder Woman, so I'm not really complaining), and led several great filmmakers like Ava DuVernay to turn down an opportunity to make a big-budget superhero film. So it's safe to say that I'm both excited and nervous to see what happens with Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. The 31 year-old director has quickly established himself as one of the best young filmmakers in the country, having teamed with Michael B. Jordan on the critically acclaimed Fruitvale Station and Creed. Coogler now has a shot to expand his horizons with a big blockbuster, the first Marvel film to be led by a person of color. And judging by this first trailer, it looks like Coogler has delivered something truly special. Check it out below!

This looks nothing short of terrific, and I'll frankly be shocked if this isn't one of the best solo films in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. For starters, Black Panther is stacked on paper. Not only is it directed by the immensely talented Coolger- it also has a cast led by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Forest Whitaker, and Phylicia Rashad. That might be the best cast in the history of the MCU (well, before next year's Infinity War, that is), and based on this first look, they all appear to be cast to perfection. But beyond the impressive talent working on Black Panther, this trailer highlights a film that looks radically different from the rest of the MCU. Marvel has heard complaints for years of a distinctly troubling visual sameness, but with Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, the aforementioned Ragnarok, and now Black Panther, I love that the studio is finally letting filmmakers take these movies in interesting visual directions. And finally, I adore the fact that Coogler appears to be taking the route of not doing too much origin work, instead just letting the character and the story work on its own merits. We already know Black Panther is a badass from Captain America: Civil War, and I can't wait to see him in action in this beautiful, futuristic African society.

Black Panther will debut on February 16, 2018. It's undoubtedly one of my most anticipated films of the next year.

Image: IMDB/Marvel