Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Aquaman *** (2018)

As escapist entertainment Aquaman gets a passing grade with its goofy sense of adventure that's unashamedly heavy on the CGI. Although I'm not familiar with classic DC character, he was introduced into the movie universe in the 2017 film Justice League. Jason Momoa brings an old school swashbuckler approach to the character, he'll save the world if needed, but would soon be as happy drinking pints all day. The plot involves power struggles between kingdoms of the sea that recalls Thor, but William Dafoe and Patrick Wilson ham it enough to keep things from getting too serious. Amber Heard as Mara, a princess from a rival kingdom, becomes Aquaman's partner in crime. CGI overkill usually derails a film, but director James Wan kept things weird enough and visually interesting enough, such as a fight among the ruins of Sicily with Ray Harryhausen overtones, to lift it above standard comic book fare.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs *** (2018)

The latest from the Joel and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs features their return to the Western genre since their 2010 remake of True Grit. Buster Scruggs is an anthology film composed of six stories of varying quality. While their gallows humor is on full display, the jokes don't always land. More clever than funny, redeemed by the sublime cinematography.

The first tale "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" stars Tim Blake Nelson as a singing outlaw with a knack for getting out of dicey situations - until his luck runs out. By far the goofiest vignette with some quirky musical interludes, Scruggs feels like a Simpsons short.

"Near Algodnes" follows James Franco as a skittish cowboy in perhaps the weakest entry with an extremely abrupt ending reminiscent of "An Occurrence At Owl Creek's Ridge."

"Meal Ticket" features Liam Neeson who runs a stage show that features an armless and legless young man who recites poetry to amazed crowds. Also ends abruptly, misanthropic to the extreme.

An unrecognizable Tom Waits performs a mostly one man show in "All Gold Canyon" as a "grizzled prospector" hard at work. Banal and surreal simultaneously. 

"The Gal Who Got Rattled" is the longest and most ponderous chapter with Zoe Kazan as a young woman on The Oregon Trail who endures a series of misfortunes. Another gut punch ending!

The final chapter "The Mortal Remains" is set on a stagecoach featuring two singing bounty hunters, a Polish count, a talkative trapper, and a pious woman played by Tyne Daily. The most philosophical chapter that's playfully existential.

Coen Brother films have a way of getting better with time. The advantage of an anthology movie is that they're usually worth revisiting if there's at least one great episode. Not sure if there's a brilliant episode here, but they do have a consistent tone that sustains all six stories. 

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse ***1/2 (2018)

2018 may go down as the greatest year for superhero movies, with Black Panther kicking things off and Into the Spiderverse capping off a watershed year for the genre. I'll confess I was getting weary of Marvel movies and their increasingly pre-fabricated feel that culminated with Age of Ultron (2015). But they've been getting better.

Intro the Spiderverse looks and feels unlike any other animated film. Not just a beautiful film to look at, but also tells an imaginative and complex story. The opening sequence references the past films in a hilarious matter, then the story takes off and never misses a beat.

The animation style blends all sorts of style  from 60s psychedelia to 80s style Saturday morning animation. Full of dramatic color and pulsating movement, the imagery is striking and made for the big screen.

The story takes the "anyone can wear the mask" concept into creative and progressive directions. Into the Spiderverse imagines an alternate universes with different variations of Spiderman, all similar and unique. The central character Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is a young African-American teen who befriends Peter Parker and discovers secrets about his own family - and destiny. All the characters are fleshed out and play a pivotal role in the story.

Not just another superhero movie, but one that builds upon and broadens the mythology, Intro the Spiderverse will be considered a classic. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Top Ten Movies 2018

My Top 10 movies from 2018

10) Hereditary - Some truly terrifying moments, a horror film of the first order.

9) Avengers: Infinity War - Marvel's extravaganza out does itself in spectacle.

8) BlacKKlansman - Spike Lee's terrifying account of the KKK in the 1970s.

7) Vice - A tragedy disguised as comedy.

6) Roma - An immersive film set In Mexico City about a family and their servants going through a time of change in the early 1970s.

5) Creed II - The Rocky series continues to build on the mythology.

4) Springsteen on Broadway - Bruce bares his soul in a heartfelt performance that brings his old and new fans closer to his work.

3) First Man - A soulful film about the first man to walk on the moon.

2) A Star Is Born - The most passionate film of the year.

1) Mission Impossible: Fallout - The most entertaining movie of the year. Takes big screen action to all new levels.

Honorable Mentions: Searching; Don't Worry, He Can't Get Far on Foot; Sorry to Bother You; The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling; Fahrenheit 11/9; The Other Side of the Wind

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Vice ***1/2 (2018)

With Vice, a worthy follow to his 2015 film on the 2008 financial crisis The Big Short, Adam McKay continues to inject some life into depicting modern history on film. Here the subject is former Vice President Dick Cheney, a man considered the architect of the Iraq War, a lethal power player in Washington politics, and a symbol of modern greed (although he has many competitors for that label.) Going back to the Ford administration, Cheney was known as the biggest SOB in the room who won every bureaucratic battle. It was an image he cultivated. There's a story from Peter Baker's account of the Bush years (Days of Fire) that Cheney almost posed next to a Darth Vader helmet, but was talked out of by his aides, I wish he had.

McKay's approach to Cheney's life takes up where Oliver Stone left off with his 1995 film Nixon, mimics Michael Moore style editing, and applies his SNL style of humor. Christian Bale was better than I expected and he does look like Cheney. It's a subtle performance and probably a tough one to pull off, both satiric and serious. Marketed as comedic romp in the trailers, and while it is that, Vice is not a film to revisit for the laughs.

The human side of Cheney comes through in his family relationships. A hard drinking laborer as a young man in Wyoming, he improved himself for his wife Lynne (Adams). When his daughter Mary came out as gay, he accepted it with love and support. There are scenes of Cheney patiently teaching his daughters how to fish. Warm and fuzzy stuff. Many have pointed out that even the vilest of men of history have treated their immediate families with compassion, but what about those outside the primal unit?

Cheney began his Washington career as Donald Rumsfeld's (Carrel) protege during the Nixon administration. Carrel is more clownish than serious. As chronicled in the Barry Werth book 31 Days, the two of them made an epic power grab after the resignation of Nixon. Both became millionaires in the private sector and remained major players in GOP politics. Vice suggests Cheney aspired to be President, but found an even greater opportunity as George W. Bush's VP. As played by Rockwell, GW is well meaning, but uneasy with all the responsibility.

Vice goes to great lengths to explain the Unitary Executive Theory, the idea that the President should have unlimited power when it comes to national security, a response to the War Powers Act of 1973 that put a check on executive authority. Cheney saw an opening, a Vice President could act without oversight, so he set up his own renegade department within the executive branch. A team of conservative legal scholars provided the justification.

Vice goes to great lengths to explain the Unitary Executive Theory, the idea that the President should have unlimited power when it comes to national security, a response to the War Powers Act of 1973 that put a check on executive authority. Cheney saw an opening, a Vice President could act without oversight, so he set up his own renegade department within the executive branch. A team of conservative legal scholars provided the justification.

Vice also recreates the hours in the White House bunker after the 9/11 attacks with Cheney taking control of the government. As the international climate changed overnight, Cheney saw a means to assert American power in ways never dreamed of before by the most militant of hawks. As Cheney and his team planned the Iraq War, Bush went along with it reluctantly (as the film portrays it). They strong armed Secretary of State Colin Powell (Perry) to present misleading evidence at the United Nations connecting Iraq with Al Qaeda terrorists, and in the process, not apparent in the exuberant days after the fall of Baghdad, plunged Iraq and the region into chaos, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

We now live in the world fomented by Bush and Cheney. Was it all a cash grab for American energy companies? Getting those non-existent WMD's? A half-baked geopolitical gambit? To ignite a democratic revolution? The post 9/11 world of enhanced interrogations and 24/7 surveillance certainly doesn't look more democratic. We get Cheney's own justification at the end, a variation of the Nicholson "you need me on that wall" speech from A Few Good Men.

Apparently, both sides of the political divide are irked with Vice. The right will dismiss it as Hollywood propaganda, while many critics on the left feel McKay did not go far enough in condemning Cheney. I did not walk away with that impression. Here we get history as farce, but a farce with consequences. The film leaves you thinking about how the decisions of the past shaped the reality of today.