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Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

1989.  Directed by Steven Spielberg.

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“You lost today kid, but it doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

The Indiana Jones films and their architect, Steven Spielberg are household names, stitched into the fabric of modern pop culture with two-fisted pulp icons battling the forces of evil with brains and brawn, and always in a larger than life fashion.  The first two films are considered to be some of the greatest action epics ever committed to film and Spielberg chose to return to his beloved world of whips and relics with a fantastical epic steeped in themes of fatherhood and the power of knowledge over hatred.

Indiana Jones sets off in pursuit of his father, who’s gone missing while questing for the Holy Grail.  Beset upon by wicked Nazis and greedy scholars, Jones and his father must overcome their differences and believe in the power of family and friendship to persevere over the forces of darkness.  Jeffrey Boam’s script begins with a childhood flashback to one of Indy’s first adventure, setting the tone for the familial morality tale at the center of Crusade’s larger than life story.    The intimate moments between the Jones’ and the action set pieces are perfectly balanced, never overtaking one another.  The dialogue is packed with endlessly quotable lines, allowing each of the cast to shine in their particular moments.  Harrison Ford’s solid embodiment of Indy is beyond reproach, but it is Sir Sean Connery’s brilliant turn as Indy’s father that is the highlight.  His wizened dedication to the Grail is only outdone by his emotional realizations of its cost on his life and still even these moments of depth pale in comparison to his legendary beachfront confrontation with a fighter plane and his pitch perfect, boyish charm in his scenes with Denholm Elliot’s hilarious sidekick.  His monologue about the importance of the quest for the Grail is one of the film’s best moments.

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Douglas Slocombe’s robust cinematography takes advantage of the lighting in sweaty close ups only to pull back into beautiful wide shots that encapsulate the wonders of nature and the incomprehensible malice of Nazi Germany.  John Williams brings his formidable harmonics to bear with the expected triumphs previously established and then surpasses them with unforgettable tones that clearly divide good and evil.  While there are betrayals and shifting motives, the heart of the franchise has always been about right and wrong, black and white, and Williams is perfectly in rhythm with this concept.

The final ingredient is the heart racing action that is the heart of the film.  Beginning with a dazzling chase sequence featuring the late River Phoenix and then transitioning into no holds barred rescue involving a tank, The Last Crusade takes its time getting to the next explosion and when it arrives, there is nothing but excellence to feast upon.  In a time of CGI saturation, action fans will always have classics such as this to return to, a powerful reminder of the power of practical effects and inspired creativity.

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Available now for streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is essential viewing for anyone who’s ever entered a theater.  Featuring a heartwarming story about fathers and son, hilarious exchanges amidst pulse pounding battles, and a golden age presentation, this is one of the all-time greats and a perfect example of how to do the blockbuster right.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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John McTiernan’s Predator – 30th Anniversary

This week was the 30th anniversary of John McTiernan’s iconic science-fiction action film Predator.  For their next discussion, Ben and Kyle talk about their love for the film why it remains an important part of American action cinema.

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KYLE: Ben, can you give us the background?

BEN:  In the fall of 1985, there was a joke running around Hollywood that Rocky Balboa had defeated all of his earthly opponents in Rocky IV and he would have to fight an alien if a fifth Rocky film were to be made.  Based on that idea, the unknown brother-writer team of Jim and John Thomas would morph the joke into what became John McTiernan’s second directorial turn, Predator.

20th Century Fox optioned the Thomas’ script, then entitled Hunter and gave it to producer Joel Silver, who was also developing Lethal Weapon for Warners.  Silver brought on Lawrence Gordon and John Davis as his producing partners and they brought on Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom Silver had worked with on Commando, also for Fox.

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KYLE:  I had no idea that the idea sprung from a Rocky joke!  Let’s dig into it.

BEN: Part Aliens, part The Thing, part Commando and full of machismo, McTiernan delivers a pulse-pounding action thriller that understands its purpose as both a sci-fi actioner and a military thriller.  It successfully blended both aspects together, dwelling on neither for too long.  From a story that reeks of the global socio-political situations in the mid-1980’s to an alien creature that is as well-hidden as its Xenomorph brethren from Alien and Aliens, they delivered something very unique.

KYLE: I love that it’s a merging three separate genres that unfolds over three unique acts.  It begins as a military thriller (love your term!) and then transitions into an And Then There Were None scenario during the second act.  Finally, it ends with a man vs. monster showdown that removes not only the established rules, but reveals the creature’s monstrous nature.   What about the amazing cast?

BEN: Schwarzenegger plays “Dutch” the leader of an elite group of soldiers who are tasked with retrieving a missing U.S. diplomat in the South American jungles.  Opposite him, in an ironic twist is Carl Weathers, who plays Dillion, an old friend of Dutch’s. The irony was that he played Apollo Creed in the-then four Rocky films.

While we all cheer for Schwarzenegger, the supporting cast really is the foundation of this film.  Bill Duke, who also starred in Commando with Schwarzenegger is beyond awesome, especially when he gets pissed off.  Sonny Landham, who starred in 48 Hrs. plays Billy, a ‘tracker’. Billy really resonated with Shane Black’s “Hawkins” raunchiness, which Billy only partially gets.  The gunner, Blaine is played by Jesse Ventura.  He looked like he had a lot of fun with this role, especially when he interacted with “Poncho” played by Richard Chaves: “I ain’t got time to bleed.”  “You got time to duck?”

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KYLE:  Yes!  I think it’s a testament to the script in how well each of the characters are distinctly developed.  It could have been easy to overdo the action and violence, but instead the story takes its time deliberately fleshing out each victim so their eventual death has more impact.  You mentioned machismo, and while I agree, there’s also a bit of deconstruction, such as Mac’s monologue to Blaine before the pig attack and Billy’s supernatural fear of the creature.  Speaking of, it was Stan Winston’s design right?

BEN: Interestingly, Richard Edlund developed the original creature, which proved unworkable in the jungle.  It was scrapped and redeveloped by Winston with the help of an unlikely source:  James Cameron.  R/Greenberg Associates, who received critical acclaim for their opening credits work on 1978’s Superman, were on board to help supervise the practical effects, giving us the now familiar infrared imagery from the Predator’s perspective.  The 1.85:1 aspect ratio that McTiernan and Donald McAlpine shot the movie in gave the film a visual intimacy, allowing the Predator to blend into the jungles, only revealing him late in the second act.

KYLE: I think that is one of the entire franchise’s best elements, how they weave together the POV’s of both the human characters and the alien.  McAlpine’s eye really captures some amazing shots, the intro of the team as they arrive in a helicopter in low light is fantastic, as is the wide shot of Poncho and Blaine underneath the hill as it explodes.  Every time the creature is revealed with that mask is both stunning and chilling.

BEN: Jean Claude Van Damme was originally signed to play the Predator, but it was thought that he was not menacing enough.  Kevin Peter Hall, who also played Harry in Harry and the Hendersons and would reprise his role in Predator 2 in 1990 filled the costume with his 7 ft 2 in frame.  He was the perfect size to play the behemoth.  Sadly, he died in 1991 at age 35.

Underscoring the onscreen action and the drama, was maestro Alan Silvestri.  His bombastic military themes, with deep brass expanded the stage while the brooding sci-fi themes underpinned the otherworldly nature of not only the Predator, but the jungle itself.

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KYLE: That is a great point!  From the second they repel down into the jungle, the viewer knows they’ve left the safety of the civilized world and entered a place of extreme danger.  The brotherhood building fantastic, because the characters (for the most part) work together against the threat, rather than it becoming a three-way dance between oppositions and I really respect that choice.  I think it’s one of the reasons the film remains a personal favorite for so many film lovers.

BEN: Watching the film on a big screen the other night was a treat.  The film’s looks hold up and its story is relevant today.  However, its pacing always felt just a bit off for me.  We go from longer sequences and typical sci-fi style edits to rapid-fire editing indicative of military films.  Oh, don’t mistake me.  The movie works because of its cast, the story, and for exactly the same reasons Alien, The Thing, and Aliens worked:  they all gave us relatable characters and a series of events building up to the big reveal.  They maximized the humanity while crafting the finite details and environment; and they weren’t worried about creating a world or a franchise.

KYLE: I can respect that.  I think I’d go 4 or 4.5/5 if I were pressed, but as a favorite, pure entertainment affair, this is one of the all-time greats for me.  I enjoy the pacing and the tonal shifts because I think it’s really Predator’s key to success.  The endless copies tried to emulate the formula and continually failed because they went to heavy on one of the themes rather than finding harmony, which McTiernan does with a great sense of style.  This was the beginning of his legacy.

BEN:  Jesse Ventura would go on to be governor of Minnesota and Schwarzenegger would go on to be governor of California (and he married Maria Shriver during this film’s production).  McTiernan went wide with this film and he would go even further with 1988’s Die Hard, setting up a solid track record of films with solid stories.  Joel Silver would go on to work on other big projects, giving us Lethal Weapon, of which Shane Black wrote the screenplay for, and would work with the Thomas brothers on 1996’s Executive Decision. Black, who caught a lucky break when Silver owed him a favor with his role as Hawkins, shadowed McTiernan and is writing and directing next year’s The Predator.

KYLE: The Thomas brothers would also write the script and Silvestri would score the second film as well.  You know I had to include a shameless plug for Predator 2!  What a fantastic franchise!  Highly recommended?

BEN: I respect the inclusion of Predator 2.  We are in agreement!

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Mel Brook’s YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Young Frankenstein

1974. Directed by Mel Brooks.

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Achieving perfection in a comedy is arguably one of the hardest goals in cinema.  Scripts tend to fall flat at certain points within the narrative and for the most part, the art is confined to the dialogue and physicality of the cast.  There a handful of films that break this trend, using extremely articulate production design and masterful camerawork to combine with the talents of the actors to produce a genuine classic.  Mel Brooks’ directorial masterpiece Young Frankenstein is a one of kind film and arguably one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Screen legend Gene Wilder gives one of his best performances as Frederick Frankenstein, a New York physician desperate to separate himself from the notorious reputation of his grandfather.  Frederick inherits Victor Frankenstein’s castle after a relative passes away and elects to travel to Transylvania where he is soon caught up in rogue science procedures involving the creation of life with abnormally large endowments.  Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the script, seeking to both spoof the golden era of horror films while intimately praising their legacy.  Despite Brooks’ penchant for over the top, risqué material, Frankenstein stays carefully in bounds, a deliberate departure that only enhances the comedic impact.  No joke, no matter how lewd or crude ever feels forced, leaving the viewer with a sore stomach and a headful of quotable lines that remain hysterically potent to this day.

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Wilder also stars as Frederick, capitalizing on the fantastical elements of his performance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory three years early and mixing it with a level of absurd obsession that almost steals the show.  He’s supported by the amazing Madeline Kahn as his uptight fiancé, Teri Garr as the tempting lab assistant, Cloris Leachman as the mysterious groundskeeper, and Marty Feldman as the fish-eyed henchman, Igor.  Peter Boyle’s turn as the Monster is outright hysterical, taking all of the legendary creature’s most important scenes from Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein and making them not only his own, but crafting each of them so that they blend seamlessly into Brooks’ dark playground of sexual magic and hilarious pronunciations.  Gene Hackman has a cameo as a blind monk and while this was Hackman’s first foray into comedy, his scene with Boyle is one of the film’s many, many iconic sequences, outdone only by Wilder and Boyle’s madcap rendition of Putting on the Ritz.

Brooks’ stern dedication to authenticity is one of Young Frankenstein’s most important attributes.  The studio attempted to shoot in color multiple times, however Brooks remained firm in ensuring the film was shot in black and white.  Gerald Hirschfield’s cinematography is so good; the viewer often forgets they’re watching a film, as the images transport them directly into the insanity.  There are numerous visuals that pay tribute to the Universal monster films, however, Hirschfield’s unique command of depth and tight compositions keep the focus on the gags and on the small, but enriched world of Brooks’ design.  Brooks used actual set pieces, such as the lab, from James Whale’s Frankenstein films of the early 30’s and took other approaches with production that would go on to cement the film’s well-earned reputation as being not only outright hilarious, but a perfect example of art via comedy.

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Available now on Netflix, Young Frankenstein is one of Brooks’ best made movies and an essential piece of viewing for anyone who enjoys comedy.  Gene Wilder tragically passed away almost one year ago today and it was in his honor that many theaters chose to show this unabashed classic posthumously.   Whether you’re a lifelong fan of Mel Brooks or discovering him for the first time, Young Frankenstein is the pinnacle of American comedy: A brilliantly composed satire, masterfully directed by one of the true rebels of comedic cinema.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

2017.  Directed by Patty Jenkins.

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Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is two films.  On the surface, it is the most Marvel-esque of DC’s cinematic universe, using all of the tried and true blockbuster clichés to present a feel good origin story in which love triumphs over evil.  However, beyond the expected trappings of the genre, Jenkins’ unique directorial style and Gal Gadot’s larger than life performance take the narrative beyond costumed mayhem into a thrilling exploration of sexual politics and morality that almost escapes the constraints of its three colored origins.

Wonder Woman is thrust into the Great War when a British spy crash lands on her island sanctum.  Believing that Ares, the god of war, is responsible for the carnage, she sets out with a group of unconventional soldiers to bring an end to his reign of terror and restore peace to the world.  Jenkins balances the fantastical elements of Wonder Woman’s origins with the plight of the trenches in a remarkable dance.  There are stunning scenes of otherworldly bravura mixed with gritty war sequences that conjure a feeling of epic adventure that never loses steam.  Gal Gadot’s emotional turn as the titular hero is one for the ages, bringing gravity and vulnerability to a role that could have easily misfired.  Although she is not mortal, her basic, possibly naïve, understanding of the heart of the human experience is what carries the film.

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Chris Pine does an admirable job as the love interest, codifying the human experience through genuine exchanges with Gadot and outstanding scenes with the supporting cast of misfit soldiers.  One of the film’s best surprises is in its candid approach to the cost of conflict, both in the heart and soul.  Gadot approaches moral dilemmas with the benefit of not only being an outsider, but with a level of innocence that springs from never experiencing inequality.  The ramifications of this play throughout the narrative, both playfully and with serious intent.  While Wonder Woman plays to the Marvel formula with perfection, it transcends the entire MCU catalogue with conviction through its acknowledgement of these truths and its doubling down on the hero’s story.   While there’s nothing immediately new, what Wonder Woman does, it does exceptional well.

Matthew Jensen’s cinematography approaches the combat with an intriguing mix of gentile splendor and brutal omnipotence.  The bird’s eye capture of the No Man’s Land sequence is flawless, delivering an action extravaganza that builds upon the notion of hope in desperation that propels Gadot’s heroine into an iconic status.  While the slow-motion captures become tedious as the film winds on, there’s so much to digest that the painfully long running time isn’t a factor until the clunky, CGI bonanza of the finale.  Die-hard fans will not be able to unsee the glaring similarities with The First Avenger, however, the recipe is one that continues to prove, time and time again that it works and Wonder Woman simply does it better.

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The importance of a female focused superhero film cannot be understated.   This is a unique film because of its treatment of the complex issues of gender, violence, and heroism.  However, as a sum of its parts, Wonder Woman stays regrettably in bounds, offering nothing fresh to the summer blockbuster and while this may disappoint viewers looking for the next best thing, it’s important to remember that films are meant to entertain, and Wonder Woman not only eclipses this humble goal, it also inspires.

Highly recommend.

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Batman

Batman

1989.  Directed by Tim Burton.

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Paving the way for the cinematic age of the superhero, Tim Burton’s noir drenched take on the caped crusader is an intriguing film.  Batman was one of the darker entries into the comic book genre at the time, using Art Deco architecture and a Stygian color palette to present Gotham as a city of another time.  Jack Nicholson’s over the top embodiment of the clown prince of crime combines with Danny Elfman’s memorable score and Academy Award winning art direction to create a Gothic dreamscape where the terrors of the mind walk the streets and identity is the last battleground between good and evil.

On the surface, Batman hits all of the expected narrative points of a caped crusader epic.  The Bat battles the Joker, grapples with trauma from the loss of his parents, experiences emotional discordance with intimacy, and is initially rebuked by the people he is attempting to save.  However, Burton build’s on Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s script by placing the story in an alternate Gotham, cut off from traditional reality.  Where later films, such as Nolan’s trilogy, would seek to weave the concepts of costumed vigilantes into plausible reality, Burton created not only an original take on the character, but an entirely unique world.  There are similarities to reality, but Gotham is very much its own universe.  The buildings emulate the sharp angles of Lang’s Metropolis, captured by Roger Pratt’s insightful cinematography, perfectly emulating the comic book experience.  Looming shots of the doomed metropolis are interwoven with bold compositions of Welles-like chemical factories and avant-garde gatherings of the elite.

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The thugs and police use antiquated weapons such as tommy guns while enshrouded in classic outfits designed Bob Ringwood.  Paul Engelen’s makeup design is another outstanding touch, particularly with respect to everything outside of the already astonishing Joker prosthetics.  While Nicholson’s demonic trickster is the centerpiece, Engelen’s devious designs align with Burton’s farcical realm of dread.  From grinning victims of Joker’s chemical poisons to beleaguered, unwashed News Anchors, physical appearance, not just costumes, is an important part of Batman’s dangerous hysterics.

The overarching divide between wealth and poverty is bridged by the criminal element, symbolized through Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable portrayal of The Joker.  The seminal character has had several incarnations over the years, with Nicholson’s being the most madcap of the bunch, harmonizing the gleeful insanity of Caesar Romero with the dangerous edge that Ledger would bring to the role years later.  Nicholson’s embodiment is so over the top that it outshines Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman in every interaction and while this initially appears as a flaw, it is also a testament to Keaton’s quiet restraint that showcases his immense supporting talent.  Batman is a film about larger than life personas doing battle in a city of excessive dreams, a place directly responsible for their existence.  Where Nicholson is the criminal turned maniacal aristocrat, Keaton is the fallen noble, a man with expansive wealth who drifts from scene to scene in a calculating haze of aloofness, waiting for the call to action.  While both characters share certain qualities, each actors’ approach to the material beautifully conflict, carving out layers of subtext within their relationship and in their distinct views on the world around them.

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Kim Basinger delivers an interesting turn as Wayne’s love interest, Vicki Vale.  Initially, her scream laden performance may repulse, however, after repeated viewings, there’s an edge to her character that reveals itself, particularly during her scenes with Nicholson.  Despite the facade of fear, Basinger’s physical cues are representative of someone who has looked death in the face and it is one of Batman’s few flaws that this concept wasn’t explored more fully, particularly her character’s experiences during a South American civil war.  Her scenes with Keaton are placid, perhaps due to reasons outlined above, but an understanding of Vale’s history puts some of the soapy pleadings in the final act into a more forgivable light.

Prince performed the soundtrack, lacing the golden age throwback with funky rock tunes that were in high rotation during the summer of 1989.  Party Man, the most memorable track is featured during the slapstick museum sequence, a scene that is the perfect summation of Batman’s theme.  What appears playful and eccentric from a distance masks murderous intent and it is here that the Bat and the Joker first lay eyes upon another.  Danny Elfman’s triumphant score outpaces the riotous soundtrack with an eclectic blend of inspiring anthems and shadowy undertones, simulating both Batman’s plight and the fallen metropolis of Gotham, a city living in the shadow of itself.

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Available now for digital streaming, Batman is one of the most important American films of the ’80s.  It created a blueprint that has been improved upon since its release and was the key to opening the floodgates of superhero related entertainment that continue to dominate the box office to this day.  Nicholson’s epic performance is the brightest gem; however it is the world of Burton’s design that is Batman’s hidden power, a corrupted place of elegance and predation that has inspired nightmares and dreams since the film’s debut.  If you’re looking to see where it all began, Batman is the caped patriarch, and it delivers on virtually every level.

Highly. Highly Recommend.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

2017.  Directed by James Gunn.

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Guardians of the Galaxy is often described as one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  As a result, expectations for James Gunn’s follow up, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were incredibly high and the final result, while not perfect, is one of the best made superhero films thus far.  Featuring a scene stealing performance from Michael Rooker, uncharacteristically beautiful visuals, and an unexpectedly mature story, this is a film that showcases the limitless potential of superhero films as allegories to the struggles of reality as well as reveals the innate ability of comic book films to mirror the depth and artistic breath of their source material.

Peter “Starlord” Quill is found by his wayward father, Ego after a disastrous job that leaves the Guardians fractured and pursued by a ruthless alien civilization.  As Peter explores his relationship with father, terrible truths are revealed that test the bonds of friendship and family as each Guardian confronts the horrors of the past for hope at a better future.  Gunn’s script stumbles to achieve the same level of humor of the first film while presenting an action film almost devoid of action that almost entirely mimics The Empire Strikes Back.  However, as the story begins to unfold, dark sequences of mass executions, torture, and murderous narcissism are interwoven with one of the most sophisticated stories to be featured in a Marvel film.  Building on the first movie’s core of broken outsiders forming a ragtag tribe among the stars, Gunn’s second effort expands on the theme of family by examining fraternal conflicts and surrogate fathers. While the heart wrenching conclusion is telegraphed from one of the first frames, the emotional payoff works due to the chemistry of the cast.

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Michael Rooker’s performance as Yondu is a tarnished, broken, and perfect super nova.  His vulnerable delivery of dialogue combines with moments of genuine menace and paternal empathy to form the foundation around which everything else orbits.  This is a story about love and its consequences distilled through a cosmic interpretation of Cat’s in the Cradle and none of it works without Rooker’s panache. Dave Bautista continues to impress, despite the clunky script, and his scenes with newcomer Pom Klementieff are comically awkward in one instant and then tear inducing in the next. Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan continue to have weaker arcs, but this is more from the material than their performances.  Bradley Cooper’s Rocket continues to impress, with Cooper’s verbal torment unexpectedly overcoming continually stale jokes about his origins.  Kurt Russell is the perfect choice for his role, but to expound would spoil the pure joy of his introduction.  The Baby Groot-centric credits are outstanding, focusing on the childlike wonder of the character while ignoring a repetitive action scene that suggests a heightened awareness of the formulaic constraints of its colleagues.  Unfortunately, there are continuous efforts to double down on the character’s cute factor that are underwhelming.

Henry Braham’s ambitious cinematography is the savior.  There’s a remarkable shot of Yondu looking out onto a shantytown while red and green neon lights reflect against a dingy window that underscore the character’s inner turmoil and immediately sets the tone.  Another jaw dropping composition features Gamora sitting on an alien planet’s surface, surrounded by a psychedelic miasma of colors while the film’s centerpiece involves a beautifully shot sequence of musical mayhem aboard a pirate ship.  The poetic finale is a color infused sequence of reverence that is both a sublime capstone on a transitional story and a sensational homage to the era in which Guardians is forever submerged.  The soundtrack diverts from the first film’s grab bag of chart toppers to feature intimate songs whose symbolism (while blatant) mixes perfectly with the serious tonal shifts and will have even non-believers humming for days after.

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Ramsey Avery’s art direction is yet another unexpected surprise.   The Sovereign are an alien race that are introduced during the first act and with just a handful of precious scenes, the sheer scope of their home world is communicated through dazzling Art Deco throne rooms and Black Mirror-esque combat stations.  The planet on which the bulk of the story transpires is a LSD soaked sanctuary, mirroring the arrival of a child’s errant father who brings wondrous new toys as compensation for unreliability.  Dreams, impressions, and preconceptions are all at play both in the physical environments on display and the heady metaphysical conflicts within the characters’ hearts.

In theaters now, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is not perfect, but it excels in areas that other Marvel films have just begun to explore.  Michael Rooker’s outstanding supporting performance anchors a film that could have easily gotten carried away into a vortex of CGI and Vol. 2 almost does.  It is brought back from the brink of forgettable action sequels by breathtaking visuals and adult oriented themes that combine to create the perfect remedy for the spandex fatigue that has gripped the box office.  If you enjoyed the first film, there is plenty here that will work, albeit with some rough patches of dialogue and crude humor, but underneath the expected mediocrity lies a passionate story about the definitions of family, traumatic abuse and its consequences, and most surprisingly a well-defined villain with a purpose, something that has been severely lacking in the bulk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films.  Candy cane aesthetics and pure heart are what elevates James Gunn’s second pop-pulp space opera to front of Marvel’s cinematic stable.

Highly Recommend.

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Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant

2017.  Directed by Ridley Scott.

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Alien: Covenant is a tricky film.  Alien was the film that opened a realm of possibilities, both for the franchise and for the career of its creator, directorial legend, Ridley Scott.  Following from the extremely divisive Prometheus, Scott weaves an intricate story about the cycle of life and death masked in the guise of a prequel.  This is a deeply personal film made by a 79 year old artist.  What it loses with a shallow script and endless horror clichés is almost enough to derail what is quite possibly one of Scott’s most profound works.  While diehard fans will undoubtedly find many things to pick apart, it is entirely probable that Scott decided to plumb the existential limits of humanity via a return to his beginnings, and it is with that idea in mind that I left the theater with the understanding that this film is one for the ages, glaring flaws and all.

A colony ship intercepts a human transmission from a mysterious planet.  Desperate to find a new planet to call home, the crew decides to investigate and happens upon the most terrifying experiment in the history of creation.  Fusing elements of the Island of Dr. Moreau, the spiritualism of Prometheus, and Blade Runner’s creation vs. man bravura, John Logan and Dante Harper’s script stumbles, falls, and then revels in the gutter of rogue philosophy in which it lands.  The first act features the standard character building staple of the franchise, however there is not enough to go around and it’s immediately apparent whom will die and whom will persevere.  Danny McBride is a surprising standout, emulating the blue collar roots that made the initial film so endearing.  The banter between the crew is cringe worthy at best and when death does come, surviving characters are instantly resilient, eschewing Veronica Cartwright’s unforgettable paranoia in favor of soldiering on.  While this may appear as a weakness, it is a slick alignment with Scott’s overall message.  The reaper always wins and life always goes on, leaving the memories of the fallen behind.

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Michael Fassbender’s dual turn as the loyal android Walter and the devious rebel David has to be seen to be believed.  The first scene of the film does not work without his subtle ferocity, setting the stage for what follows with a poise that likens his electronic birth to a toddler with a high caliber pistol, questioning his existence and his maker’s intent with ominous innocence.  His scenes with both versions of himself are the meat of the story and when taken separately from the paltry characterization of the humans, they are truly something to behold.  Katherine Waterston’s archetypal turn is adequate, but ultimately pales under the weight of the story.   Yes, characters make bad decisions, possibly even worse than forgetting to run horizontally, however, unlike its predecessor, Covenant has so much going on, there’s barely enough time to complain.

Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography, from the stunning first frame is a visual bacchanal of gory aftermaths and alien architecture.  David’s insidious lair conjures thoughts of Kurtz’s sanctum in Apocalypse Now while the CGI scenes in space command the gorgeous touch one would expect from Sir Scott.  There are dozens of Easter eggs strewn throughout Chris Seagers’s titanic production design, featuring impossible compositions of alien civilization, blending incomprehensible science with low tech accoutrements to bring the high gloss feel of the new films together with the low-fi grit of the classics.

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In the end, Alien: Covenant is a remarkable film for what it is saying underneath the carnage and ill-advised choices of its stable of victims.  The evolutions of the creature are symbolic of the series, beginning with small terrors in claustrophobic environs that soon spin out of control as technology, budget, and popularity demand more and more, ultimately consuming the creative fires of design.  The search for meaning in the creation of life and dissenting against the inevitability of death are everywhere in Covenant’s beautiful set pieces and their presence will either intrigue or repulse.

In theaters now, Ridley Scott’s bridge building film creates more questions than answers for one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time.  Derailing the audience’s concept of timeline and progression, Alien: Covenant breaks all of the established rules to present a blood soaked Genesis in the stars.  Scott made the film he wanted to make, and while there are elements which will placate general expectations for an addition to the Alien pantheon, it’s my belief, that Scott almost forgot there would be an audience watching.  This is his story and while it may not entirely work, it is something terrifyingly genuine and sincere.

Highly Recommend.

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