Saturday, December 3, 2016

Strange Days Indeed: Doctor Strange Review


Is it just me, or is the Marvel Cinematic Universe the world's longest-running geek soap opera (or at least the most expensive one)?  Our newest entry into this world is Doctor Strange, the adaptation of yet another Marvel comic book hero, unique in that he has no superpowers but instead uses magic and sorcery to do his work.  Doctor Strange doesn't break the mold when it comes to how Marvel Studios does things: intro to new character, training, get new villain, secondary characters who at times have little to nothing to do, have hero & villain face off, and set up for next movie.

However, Doctor Strange also manages to get humor right, gives us simply astonishing visuals (which put it at the forefront of the Best Cinematography Oscar race) and generally balances the fantastical elements of the story with the realistic ones.

Doctor Hugo Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant surgeon with exceptionally dexterous hands (think a mix of Hugh Laurie's House and Tony Stark).  His long-suffering ex, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) endures him, recognizing his abilities but not happy with him as a person.  One fateful night, he is in a car accident.  He survives it, but his hands are extensively damaged, and thus he loses both his medical abilities and his will to live (save for returning to his former glory).

In his search to heal thyself, he hears of a former patient that he dismissed as beyond help but who now not only can walk again but can play sports.  This patient, Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), tells Strange how he healed: it was through the power of Kamar-Taj, a secret mystical shrine deep in Nepal.  The atheist and arrogant Strange dismisses the idea out of hand, but in desperation opts to investigate it, if only to perhaps find if Eastern medicine/medical techniques can do what Western ones could not.

Unbeknown to him, he has been watched by those at Kamar-Taj, especially The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and her protégé, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  They are masters of the mystical, ensuring the safety of our world against other realms of the supernatural and alien.  Strange is for once humbled when he is shown other universes by being separated between the physical and astral planes...and is promptly rejected from being inducted into the occult secret society.

He will not be denied, and eventually The Ancient One agrees to take him on.  Strange proves a brilliant but erratic student, devouring knowledge but still limited in his comprehension of the supernatural, stubbornly holding on the reality of the physical universe while not embracing the truth of other worlds.

His training is needed more than ever, as the villainous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is attempting to gain world domination and immortality, two things that no one should have.  He has killed the former Head Librarian at Kamar-Taj to get at forbidden knowledge (knowledge that Strange himself has toyed with) and will stop at nothing to get his way.

Strange and Kaecilius begin a lengthy battle, one that transports Strange to various places (including back at the hospital where Palmer, in a state of shock to see Strange both in elaborate garb and leaving his own body) attempts to save his life while he battles on.  Strange is told that The Mystical Warriors he is with are a bit like The Avengers...sorcerers who fight mystical dangers.  In the war between Strange and Kaecilius (and their minions) Strange finds his own enchanted object (the Cloak of Levitation) and meets the ultimate foe: Dormammu from the Dark Dimension, a powerful being that has promised Kaecilius that immortality he seeks.

The final battle is in Hong Kong (as a side note, the fact that many American films, particularly big-budget films, now cater their work to the Chinese market I'm sure had NO connection to the final battle being in Hong Kong).  Through a little trickery of his own, Strange defeats both, but at a cost.  Mondo, disillusioned, walks away.  The Ancient One finally dies, and the talisman at the monastery is one that contains another Infinity Stone that might play a role in future adventures.

This last bit of information made someone in the audience gasp, meaning there's a grown man who got excited over a throwaway bit of detail that I am barely conscious of, solidifying my idea that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, indeed, the world's longest (and/or most expensive) soap opera.


Benedict Cumberbatch has received great acclaim (and an Emmy) for his role in Sherlock (though I'm one of the few dissenters of both Sherlock and his version of The Great Detective---VIVA JEREMY BRETT).  He has filled his quota of Oscar-bait material with The Fifth Estate and The Imitation Game (coming up with his long-sought Best Actor nomination for the latter); now he delves into more commercial fare to shift into being a STAR and not just an ACTOR with a pretentious name in pretentious projects.  As much as I am not a Cumber-whatever, I concede that I think Cumberbatch makes a perfect Strange: his melodious baritone and haughty manner a perfect fit for our arrogant hero.  He makes Strange that arrogant figure humbled and ultimately heroic, a curious character study in the craziness that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There was a lot of criticism when the Anglo Swinton was cast as a supposed Asian character (the film mentions that she is really of Celtic origin I figure as a way to paper over that discrepancy...and omit the Tibetan origins since, you know, the Chinese pretend Tibet never existed).  Putting aside the fact that this might be a bit of whitewashing, I soon forgot that Swinton wasn't Tibetan, her great range and acting ability powering over those objections (though there is a case as to whether it was a good choice to cast Swinton at all). 

No question on Ejiofor as the noble, perhaps too moralistic Mondo, and Benedict Wong as "Wong", the head Librarian with one name.  Like Eminem, or Adele, or Beyoncé. 

What is surprising in Doctor Strange in terms of overall tone is that it has more humor than some of the other MCU films and actually manages to make them if not laugh-out-loud funny, at least less serious than others in the franchise.  I understand Cumberbatch has a wonderful sense of humor in real life that his roles don't show (I put it to his voice sounding so serious that jokes might come across as threats).  His interplay with Wong (Strange seems positively aghast that Wong has never heard of Beyoncé, down to letting him borrow his iPod so as to listen to Single Ladies while Strange pokes around the Library) is not hilarious, but shows that Doctor Strange is making an effort to not be so deadly serious.

Same goes whenever the Cloak of Levitation comes to life and starts slapping the various henchmen that threaten Strange.  Doctor Strange isn't a comedy, but it makes a choice to try and have a little more fun, which in this case was a smart decision.

Doctor Strange also has some astonishing cinematography when Strange travels to other multiverses. My friend Fidel Gomez, Jr., who came with me and is a Doctor Strange fan, commented that at times it was 'visual overload', and I agree with him: sometimes you are so overwhelmed that one is in danger of getting nauseated at it all.  It is splendid to look at, and I can imagine Doctor Strange receiving a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination, but part of me is thankful I didn't see it in IMAX lest I go insane with it all.

The comparisons to Inception are appropriate (and I figure Doctor Strange outdoes Inception in terms of the visuals of time/reality bending). Given however, that this is a world of the supernatural, it isn't all that much to complain about.

Sadly, Doctor Strange still hasn't come up with a good way to do villains.  Mikkelsen was a wash as Kaecilius, but I think that no one really could have done much with the role.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to have a real good villain.  Apart from Tom Hiddleston's Loki in the Thor movies (the film series that I consider the weakest of the franchise), every villain in a MCU film has been pretty weak or uninteresting. Doctor Strange keeps to that, since Kaecilius (or the Galatcus-type Dormammu) is not a menace or played as though he/she were going to be anything other than a plot device.

It also relegates McAdams to an uninteresting character, one who is just there to mope for Strange or against Strange.  She is not integrated well into the film, and apart from Black Widow, has there been a positive, strong female character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe on a recurring basis?

I will also say I wasn't too thrilled with the 'timey-wimey' resolution to the conflict.  I actually groaned as to how Strange defeated Dormammu, but I put that down to Doctor Who fatigue.

Still, apart from those quibbles, Doctor Strange is a MCU film that manages to be separate from the overall universe and still find itself within the overall narrative of the world's longest/most expensive soap opera.  Splendid visuals, a great performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (complete with obligatory shirtless shot), Tilda Swinton, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, a nice bit of humor, great action and visuals, Doctor Strange shows that Marvel Studios has yet to make a truly bad film.

And as a side note, the opening credits for Marvel Studios are quite impressive too.


Friday, December 2, 2016

The Librarians: And the Fangs of Death Review


With the second episode of The Librarians Season Three, we go back to what we love about the show: a mix of magic and humor, with nods to the past and hints of the future.  We also see how Flynn Carsen is taken out of the show (something The Librarians really, really needs to work on) but on the whole, another delightful romp.

Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) has a dream of an apocalyptic future where he's guided by a spirit from the past.  Along with the Guardian Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn), they follow that dream to an Incan temple, where they find that spirit very much alive.  It's Charlene (guest star Jane Curtin), the Library's very picky finance manager.  Instead of being in danger, she is being attended to by a group of hunky Incans under an enchantment spell. 

Charlene doesn't want to leave her retirement, but when told that Apep, Egyptian God of Chaos has returned, she agrees to help.  Apep, however, has gotten to her, as she's disappeared and her retinue all dead, leaving behind only the pendant gifted by Flynn, which she has never taken off.

Now all the librarians: Jake Stone (Christian Kane), Ezekiel Jones (John Kim), and Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth), along with Flynn, begin a search for Charlene, rejigging the travel device to locate a person rather than a place.  Their search leads them to a supercollider in Canada deep underground, but under siege by mysterious forces.  Only Security head Becker (Usman Ally), scientist Kelly Nelson (Hannah Barefoot), and slightly inebriated nurse (Brian Adrian Koch) are left alive...and terrified.

Working in tandem, they work to stop the supercollider from unleashing total chaos while fighting the rest of the crew, which have been turned into werewolves by the Egyptian god Anubis, the original werewolf.  To Eve's surprise, Jenkins (John Larroquette), the cantankerous Caretaker at the Library Annex, goes along with her to Canada, something he rarely if ever does.

They meet a very friendly Canadian soldier (Dana Green), who turns out to be Apep in disguise.  She wants Charlene and all the Librarians dead, but she is defeated by all the Librarians working together.  Jones, who earlier had been bitten by a werewolf and was slowly turning into one, is saved, and we learn the truth about Charlene.

Charlene was not just the Accounts Manager at the Library.  She was the Original Guardian to the Original Librarian, Judson, back when the first Library at Alexandria was around.  Apep wants to kill Charlene because she is the only one who knows how to defeat him.  Apep has been temporarily defeated, but he will return.

One who might return is Flynn.  He has gone off to search for Charlene (who managed to escape Apep's trap, leaving her pendant as a clue), and to absolve himself from the guilt he has over the deaths of the supercollider crew which he feels responsible for.  He finds leaving Eve the hardest, but promises that once Charlene is found and Apep defeated, they will go on a long-desired vacation.

It's a bit of 'here we go again' with how Flynn departed.  This is the third time where Flynn is written out to search on his own.  The first time was when searching for The Library itself, the second for artifacts missing from The Library, and now for Charlene.

The Librarians went to a tried and true method to get Flynn out of the way from the main cast while extending the main story (I imagine Curtin will make another guest appearance, and who knows...maybe they'll get Bob Newhart to appear as Judson).  I don't particularly object to having a search for Charlene, but how often will Flynn pop in to The Librarians to have him leave just to 'search' on his own?  For me, this habit of having Flynn pop in and out eventually has to be addressed.

As a side note, I wonder if there will be The Librarian web series or comics detailing Flynn's adventures during his absences on the show.

This isn't to say that having Curtin back is a bad thing.  Far from it: she is a welcome presence in The Librarians, her brief appearance a comic delight and a nod to The Librarian TV movies that spawned the series.  If memory serves correct, Curtin's only appearance on The Librarians was in the pilot episode (and a brief one at that), so some Librarians fans may not be aware who Charlene is.  And the Fangs of Death does a good job of filling in some gaps, and adding new details.

Those of us who have seen The Librarian movies would not have guessed Charlene was a Guardian herself.  This doesn't quite go against everything we've seen prior to The Librarians debut, but it is a nice twist should anyone revisit the three television movies.

In terms of performances one of the highlights is Wyle, who has such a wonderful face of innocence as Flynn. 

Going on a bit of a tangent, I understand that The Librarians has in its production crew fans of Doctor Who (last week's episode had a very similar feel to Rose, the debut story of the revived Doctor Who).  I don't know if people remember, but the 'base under siege' storyline was a familiar story during the Second Doctor stories (to where it was seen almost as cliché during the Troughton Era).  Flynn Carsen, in a way, is a bit like The Doctor: brilliant, eccentric, not prone to use violence or weapons but intelligence to defeat his enemies, complete with Companions (the other Librarians).  Yet I digress.

Wyle was wonderful in the episode, bringing that mixture of innocence, humor, and regret--a total performance.  He has a great charm when telling people, "We're Librarians", to which an astonished Stone retorts is a phrase that never works for them. 

Almost seems a shame that he has to go.

Guest star Curtin, sadly not a big part of And the Fangs of Death, was equally adept at the humor (something The Librarians specializes in).  She is nonplussed when stating that Even and Flynn would have no issue sharing a bed, to which Eve and Flynn appear slightly surprised anyone would even suggest the obvious.

The comedy with our very eager and peppy Canadian soldier (which would explain Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's foreign policy of 'killing your enemies with kindness') and the interplay between Larroquette and Romijn was also amusing.      

The mix of humor and danger makes And the Fangs of Death a welcome return to one of my favorite shows.  I'm knocking down a couple of points due to having Flynn disappear...yet search for something/someone on his own...yet again.  I have confidence that it will tie things together (and maybe even bring Newhart back for a guest turn himself), but having seen this again I can't say I like how it was done.

Granted, at the moment I can't find another way to have that done, but apart from that And the Fangs of Death was a strong, exciting, amusing episode: all things The Librarians has in spades.  


Next Episode: And the Reunion of Evil

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Portrait of A First Lady: A Review of Jackie


Sometimes biopics opt to go broad, attempting to cover the entirety of a subject's life (example: Gandhi).  Sometimes, it opts to focus on a small aspect of a subject's life to give us a wider idea of who they were (example: The Queen).  Jackie, the biopic of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis) follows the latter, focusing primarily on the four days between the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his funeral (with segways to a post-funeral interview) into to give a portrait of a grieving widow, lost in history's fog and her own loss as to who she was now that she is no longer First Lady, and more importantly, what her husband's legacy will be.

The Journalist (Billy Crudup), more than likely Theodore H. White from Life Magazine (though he's never overtly named), comes to Hyannis Port to interview former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman), the widow of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson).  He comes to do a piece on The Widow Kennedy to see how she is coping and to let the public know her state of being.

Mrs. Kennedy is not in a good place.  As we go through the interview (which is will edit to make sure things come out as she wishes them to), Jackie relives those awful days, from the assassination itself to the aftermath: bringing the body of The President back, planning both the funeral and their son John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s birthday party, all without falling apart as a world watches her grief.

In between all this planning: working to find a proper burial spot for her husband, going sometimes with, sometimes against her brother-in-law, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), she also gets words of wisdom and encouragement from her priest (Sir John Hurt).

Jackie rages at God, attempts to give dignity to her husband, drinks, smokes, pulls herself together, comes apart, rises to the occasion of the State Funeral, comforts her children, and silently wails at being next to her husband as he dies right in front of her.

At the end of it all, she comes to a form of peace with the terrible burden placed on her, and begins to plant the idea that her husband's Presidency (which according to Bobby did not accomplish as much as he had hoped for), was not a failure.  Instead, the Kennedy Administration was the equivalent of a noble yet lost world, to 'don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot'.

The first, last, and greatest accomplishment in Jackie is Natalie Portman's performance.  This is simply the best performance by an actress this year, at least that I have seen.  Portman had two very difficult tasks as the former First Lady in Jackie.  First, she had to portray this icon of American history the way she is remembered: the soft, almost whispery voice, the elegant, patrician manner, the hesitancy that accompanied much of her public appearances (particularly the famous White House Tour she gave for television).

She also had to give us the private Jackie: the woman who had just witnessed her husband killed before her eyes, the mother who must tell her young children that their father is not coming home, the young widow left alone to wrestle with a dubious deity who robbed her of a husband and father to their children, the survivor who lives with regret.

Portman captures all of that in her performance as Jacqueline Kennedy.  It is impossible to not grieve when you see Jackie's anguish when preparing for President Johnson's swearing-in aboard Air Force One.  In her elegant pink outfit, she faces the mirror, awash in tears, the agony, shock, horror of what has happened in the last few hours overtaking her.  Amid her tears, she works to prepare to make herself presentable enough to see Johnson sworn in, but steadfastly refusing to remove the blood-stained outfit, determined to let the world see what they did to her husband.

At that moment, he was not The President.  He was 'her husband', the man she loved and lost when she saw his head blown off right before her horrified eyes. The anguish, the's all there in Portman's brilliant performance.  Whether attempting to explain the inexplicable to her children, or getting a little tipsy as her days in the White House wind down, Portman never hits a wrong note.

Portman also captures Jacqueline Kennedy's distinct voice and diction without it being mimicry.  Mrs. Kennedy's mannerisms, the way she moved, carried herself, the hesitancy, even slight fear when giving the White House Tour are also there.

Portman's performance is complete, capturing that public and private side (her anger at God is done with what I call 'elegant rage', but she also accepts the words of her priest, who tells her that she was chosen to do a special work from the Lord, one that carries it with a heavy burden but one He knows she can carry.

As Natalie Portman is the focal point of Jackie, some of her costars don't quite measure up.  I wonder if Sargaard (a good actor) was right for the role of Bobby Kennedy.  Either he didn't try for the distinct Massachusetts accent he had, or he couldn't manage one as well as Portman could manage Jacqueline's soft voice.  Also, Sarsgaard doesn't quite look like Bobby Kennedy either.  Still, while not the best version of RFK, Sargaard did a respectable job.

Crudup had little to do but be the interviewer (and I confess to thinking highly of his voice), and though he didn't have a large role he was a good sparring partner for Portman.  In his smaller role as Kennedy's confessor, Hurt showed a slight Irish charm and wit as a priest who must both console and attempt to explain the immensity of the tragedy.

At times I wasn't crazy over Mica Levi's score, at others I thought it went well with the film.  Pablo Larrain's direction was masterful as was Noah Oppenheim's screenplay.

I think some of my fellow critics have been a bit too enthusiastic when it comes to Jackie.  It doesn't alter biopics the way we know them.  However, with a tour de force performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie becomes an examination of both the public and private sides of this most elegant and enigmatic of women in a pivotal moment for both her as an individual and for the nation at large.        



Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Grace Unplugged: A Review


Grace Unplugged is a rarity in Christian films: a movie that touches on sin and temptation that comes to both believers and non-believers.  The film isn't too afraid to acknowledge that outside the safe confines of the Church, even the strongest believer can be lured to leave the Cross when 'crossing over'.  It isn't perfect, but it is in terms of Christian cinema a firm step in the right direction.

Grace Trey (AJ Michalka) is the daughter of Johnny Trey (James Denton).  Johnny had a big hit song, Misunderstood, which catapulted him to the top of the charts.  Misunderstood, however, was Johnny's first and only hit, his career sinking soon after.  Johnny had a religious conversion and embraced Christianity.  Now a music director at a church, he is content in the Lord and has no desire to branch out of the safe confines of worship music.  In fact, despite what I imagine are offers to venture into the Christian music market, Johnny won't go beyond his own home church.

Grace, however, does want to go and venture into The World.  She also might be wanting to get away from Johnny's more strict world, chafing under his benevolent control (for example, going after her for not filling the car up).  Her own variations on worship music (such as belting out praise & worship during service) doesn't sit well with Johnny either.

As it so happens, Grace somehow manages to do her own cover of Misunderstood (my memory is a big vague as to whether she was talked into it or did it on her own).  Regardless, Misunderstood 2.0 attracts attention from the secular music scene, particularly Johnny's old producer, Frank 'Mossy' Mostin (Kevin Pollack).  The idea of getting the daughter to do a cover of her father's hit song is too enticing for Mostin, and the lure of success on her own is too strong for Grace too.

If you recognize the song,
You Might Be A Christian
It's off to sunny (and I imagine, sinful) California to go and cut Grace's debut record.  She finds aspects of California liberating, though she has trepidations about how fast the fast life is.  As she finds the world a bit harder to navigate, she really has no one to be accountable to.

She finds herself enthralled when a date is set up with Jay Grayson (Zane Holtz), star of the teen soap Thunder Falls.  Already she is starting to compromise her beliefs: though there is no intimacy (and to be honest I don't remember what the exact reason she didn't was), just the idea of her going to his place is already enough to raise eyebrows.  Grace is talked into this and a lot of other things by Mostin, insisting that being seen with Grayson will be good for her career.

One thing that might not be is with regards to her songwriting: namely, she has no experience in songwriting despite whatever impressions she may have left.  At the recording company, the only person who can understand her plight is Quentin (Michael Welch), an intern who is about the only Christian at the company.  He's not just a Christian, he's a committed Christian (he does tell Grace that it's so nice to have someone else there who can be a light to this world, an idea which Grace isn't too preoccupied with).

Another member of Mostin's bevvy of pop stars, Renae Taylor (Kelly Thiebaud), gives Grace a most curious bit of advice: your body is your biggest asset.  Grace now appears more lost in this world, with Quentin being the only one she can open up to.

With regards to Quentin and Grace, you know where it's going.

Mostin keeps pushing Grace to sing a more risqué song, One Fast Night, whose lyrics aren't overtly questionable but that to Grace seem a bit too much.  Despite the money Mostin has laid out (down to having a crew all ready to both record and go on tour), Grace leaves it all behind for the safe confines of Birmingham, where she and Johnny reconcile, even singing a new song for the congregation: All I've Ever Needed

Two Years Later, Grace finds that Mostin found a new girl to be his new pop-queen (and sing One Fast Night), while she, now engaged to Quentin, performs as the opening act for Christian singer/songwriter Chris Tomlin, where she's also joined by Johnny Trey, dueting on a wider stage.

I thought more and more on Grace Unplugged and began to wonder whether the various messages behind it were good or not. Allow me to get a little theological here.

In contemporary Christian thought there is the struggle between being IN The World but not PART OF The World.  In other words, while Christians cannot (and perhaps should not) separate themselves wholly from the culture around us, Christians should not be active participants in aspects of that culture that would go against Biblical principles.  For example, a Christian would be encouraged to participate in sports, but not to go to a bar or strip club after the game.  Maintaining that balance between The Word and The World is what causes many Christians various dilemmas.

Grace Unplugged touches on those aspects with Grace; for example whether she should sing songs that while not overt calls to sin are perhaps skimming the edges of sin.  There is a rich source of drama here, and we need only look at some figures in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM for short) to see how their own decisions affect their careers and personas.

Michael W. Smith and Third Day have had 'crossover' hits, but they've been pretty happy to stay within CCM.  Amy Grant, once the darling of the CCM scene, has ventured further out to where she's almost all 'secular' (and endured controversy when her first marriage collapsed under accusations of infidelity). Another music group linked with CCM, Jars of Clay, had a hit song in the 'mainstream' music world with Flood. They have come under fire over whether their lead singer, Dan Haseltine, appeared to come out in favor of same-sex marriage, a volatile issue within Christian circles. 

I won't even go into my own divided views on Switchfoot. 

In any case, this push-pull between the confines of The Church and The World are I think great sources of conflict. Grace Unplugged, as written and directed by Brad J. Silverman, I think went closer to the 'the World isn't a place for the Christian' worldview because rather than have Grace grow as both a woman and a Christian, she opted to essentially run back to her parents and the safety and security of the more sheltered/bubbled-in Christian world. 

I think they could have delved more into that conflict rather than have a safe way out, robbing the viewer (Christian and non) a chance to see that conflict grow and how someone brought up in the Church would handle this pressure.

Grace comes across a bit too naïve to be real, as if she wasn't sure what went on out in the world.  Johnny, for his part, did himself no favors, coming across as perhaps too strict and overprotective.  Part of me wants a film where Christians understand the world they live in is full of sin, temptation, darkness, and that they are not immune from falling into sin, temptation, and darkness.  If they didn't, what would be the point of grace and redemption?

Still, I think this is more the blame of the screenplay than of Michalka and Denton, who gave very good performances of the parts written.  Michalka in particular was adept at showing Grace's genuine fear at performing in public without the safety net of the church band. Yes, she was naïve, but she was also filled with anger at the restrictions placed on her, doubtful whether she was doing the right things.  Michalka showed herself a very good actress in bringing these conflicts to the forefront.

Another standout is Welch as Quentin.  His character comes across as someone who is genuine in his faith without being an idiot or unaware of how the world works.  In turns sweet and caring but also honest in his assessments of the industry and those it swallows up, it's a pity that Welch (best known as Mike the Human in the Twilight Series...excuse me, SAGA) hasn't broken out more.

Grace Unplugged is a strong calling card for Welch, who I imagine can do more, as well as for Michalka. The film is better than most of the Christian genre, but the fact that Grace ultimately went back to safety rather than try and fight for herself and her Lord, to me, struck a bit of a sour note, which is why I'm downgrading it just a touch. 

Still, I thought well enough of Grace Unplugged to recommend it to people who are forgiving of a flawed film that has some good acting, good songs, and doesn't treat Christians as either idiots or bigots.  All in all, again a good step forward.           



The Mystical Stuntman: A Review of The Fall


Oh, but how I struggle with The Fall.  It is one of those films where I get where they're going and what it wants to be, but also one which had my a bit frustrated and a little bit bored (bored enough to start wandering into schoolwork).  I figure many people will either love it or hate it: there will be no middle ground.  Director Tarsem Singh doubles down on the elaborate visuals and mystical nature of the story.  Its ultimate success or failure will depend on a viewer's patience with such elements.

A Hollywood stuntman, Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is severely injured after a stunt gone wrong.  He appears to be paralyzed and is at a hospital, where he meets Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), another patient at the hospital.  Roy soon begins to tell her a fantastical story of a Masked Bandit (Pace again) who joins forces with four others against the evil Governor Odious for vengeance.

Soon, Alexandria begins finding the people around her become the characters, with Roy becoming that Masked Bandit and she herself as his daughter.  Fantasy and reality soon begin to blur as Roy uses the story to con Alexandria into getting morphine for him (more than likely to commit suicide with).  In her innocence she keeps botching the job, bringing either the wrong drugs or placebos, while Roy starts blending the tragedies in his life (his lost love, his injuries) into making his story a darker, more hopeless one.

Alexandria becomes more despairing as Roy/The Masked Bandit sees his comrades fall and the Bandit himself coming close to dying.  She pushes for a semblance of hope in his story, and it looks like the audience will ultimately see a happyish ending.  Alexandria recovers from her injuries and returns to her family's orange grove, and we see that perhaps Roy has recovered to where he can perform great feats in silent movies, or perhaps that was all in Alexandria's mind.

I imagine that one's tolerance for weirdness will affect how he/she views The Fall.  I found that The Fall was too weird for children to see as a pure fantasy...and it would be too weird for adults too.  Given that it has been some time since I've seen The Fall, my memories of how difficult I found the overall tone of it may have played against it.

This isn't to say that in some respects, The Fall is a little inaccessible and opaque.  Sometimes the visuals and overall mysticism it throws at us can make someone who wants a more straightforward film almost leap up in frustration.  If anyone said that The Fall was a bit pretentious, I wouldn't fault them for saying so.

However, if we look past certain things we can find that The Fall can be enjoyed for sheer visual splendor.  Eiko Ishioka can always be counted on to create fantastical, elaborate, otherworldly costumes (from her Oscar-winning work in Bram Stoker's Dracula to her posthumous nomination for the whimsical Mirror Mirror).  The Fall, another collaboration with Singh, is no exception to Ishioka's creative powers.

If anything, the Ishioka/Singh collaboration is something that future film students should study, to see how they complimented each other in the creation of fantastical universes.

The cinematography and score are also within the keeping of that fantasy/dream world that The Fall revels in.

In short, The Fall is certainly one for the avant-garde lover (though even then I find that maybe this film will try their patience).

When I first saw it, I wrote that I felt sorry for the actors to be in something this bizarre, but again, time has tempered my views on that.  Lee Pace, a top-rate actor who has stubbornly not broken out the way his talent merits, does the dual roles of The Masked Bandit and Roy, the hero and the broken man.  He balances the performances so well.  He is part of the show, and he does it quite well. Untaru, both an unknown and a newcomer, brings a mix of innocence and endearment as Alexandria without being too cute or annoying.  For someone that young and inexperienced, Untaru managed to hold her own against experienced performers, so

I still have a hard time with The Fall.  It is a little too mystical and avant-garde for me.  I feel it will at times try people's patience with its visuals and slow pace.  However, there's just enough, just enough, for me to not dislike it as much as I did the first time.  If you go into The Fall, have patience with it, enjoy the splendid visuals and costumes, watch Lee Pace's performance, and don't work hard to 'get it'.    


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Heaping Helping Hulk Of Horror: A Review of Hulk


Marvel seems to have the Golden Touch in adapting their characters to the big screen.  You have your Iron-Man, Captain America, even Thor. 

In all of the renaissance of comic book adaptations in their vested glory, however, there is the long-forgotten figure of The Hulk. 

The first feature film based on our un-jolly green giant is notorious for being the rare comic book adaptation reviled by the fans.  Hulk was a film I had avoided for some time now, but at long last, I finally sat down and watched all 138 minutes of it. 

The stories are true: Hulk is bad.

The reasons why Hulk is not just a failure but a fiasco are many.  Hulk, however, is a fascinatingly flawed film that leaves one puzzled as to how a film featuring the angriest of the Marvel canon could be so quiet.

Dr. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is a brilliant geneticist with a dark family past: his father David, a scientist himself, performed experiments on himself to prove his ideas on DNA modification and its potential uses for warfare.  David has disappeared from Bruce's life, and Bruce struggles with his legacy.

He also struggles with Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), his former love and now colleague.  They want to create something for good: using Gamma rays to bring healing to injured people.  A malfunction causes a mass amount of Gamma rays to explode from the machine, the exposure which should have killed Bruce...but he remains mysteriously alive and well.

A mysterious figure appears at the lab too, and it isn't the snarling Major Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas).  It's the long-lost David Banner (Nick Nolte), who wants to recreate his mad science experiments with Bruce as his guinea pig.  Bruce, however, has by now slipped into the alter persona of The Hulk, who cannot control himself when he becomes angry. David threatens Betty, and it's only The Hulk who can save her, even if he has no memory of what he is afterwards.

Seeing the wreckage at Ross', her father General Ross (Sam Elliot), orders Banner's arrest.  Both Talbot and David want to use Bruce for their own nefarious schemes.   Bruce, however, escapes the secret base he's being held at and creates a rampage through the Southwest desert until reaching San Francisco. It's decided that both Bruce and David Banner are too dangerous to be controlled, and need to be killed.  A final climatic battle between them leads to perhaps Bruce's death...though One Year Later, in the jungles of South America we find Bruce, telling them, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry" in Spanish.

Hulk is pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe, long before critics and fans began lapping up every comic book-based character and spinning franchises around them.  It is the unspoken, unholy child in this comic book film world, that dark secret fans attempt to hide away in the attic (at least those who are aware of its existence).  Hulk is a horror of a film: a film that doesn't realize how hilariously awful it is, lost in its own sense of brilliance and homage to see how jumbled it all is.

It's easy to blame director Ang Lee, to say that because of his Asian background he had a hard time understanding the source material.  Lee can be blamed for letting his actors give some simply awful performances, some that are so cringe-inducing.  I have great respect for Eric Bana.  I even have respect for Jennifer Connelly, but their scenes together show two people who apparently are not acquainted with human emotions.

Both of them recite bad lines (courtesy of John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus) that few actors, even the best ones, could make sound like they came from actual people.  However, their delivery is so flat, so dull, so utterly, utterly lifeless that they end up coming across as either drugged or dead. 

A particularly bad moment is when David, in disguise, tells Betty about what happened to the janitor after the first Hulk rampage.  "Benny's dead.  I'm the new guy," he tells Betty, but there's not a hint of emotion from Betty.  She's just been told that someone she knows is dead, and her reaction is to have no reaction, to behave as if she were told the chicken sandwich is cold. 

It's not just Connelly that has no sense of emotion, it's just about everyone.  Well, except perhaps for Lucas, who hams it up almost as a way to counter Bana and Connelly's thorough lack of emotion. 

Not that this helps, because the performances are done in by Lee's very bizarre decision to recreate visually the look of a comic book.  That in and of itself isn't a horrible idea, but it's done so often and sometimes at the worst possible time.  When Talbot is killed in an explosion, we get one of those panel-like shots and Lucas' most unintentionally hilarious face.

The decision to have a comic book-type look to Hulk in their panel shots makes it look like we are seeing alternate takes of the same scene.  Soon you start trying to focus which take to pay attention to and it becomes maddening.  It's as if Lee couldn't decide what shots to use, so he said, 'Let's use ALL of them'!

Again and again we are treated to things like this, and even stranger scenes.  I think we get flashbacks within flashbacks and Bruce's dreams and/or transformations that take on a weird, psychedelic, even esoteric, quasi-mystical turn. 

Certain elements were hilarious (Hulk vs. demon dogs, slipping into King Kong territory), and some make situations worse (Danny Elfman throwing big music in what I figure was an effort to make things better).

Hulk has a ridiculous story, universally bad performances, irritating multi-split screens, and nothing to make someone want to watch more stories about this Hulk.  When one character says, "You want to go home now?", I think that was Hulk giving the audience a hint.      


Monday, November 28, 2016

God's Not Dead 2: A Review


Well, 2016 will go down as The Year of The Sequel, where the film market was flooded with Parts 2, 3, 4 or more of films that either we knew were coming (who wasn't aware that there would be more entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) or that one wouldn't have expected from the first film.  A good (or bad) example of this is Now You See Me 2: a sequel to a movie that to my mind wasn't having America clamoring for more stories of The Horsemen.

Never ones to stay behind for long, the Christian film industry has decided to be imitators of the World by bringing us God's Not Dead 2.  This sequel to the surprise hit God's Not Dead can be called a cash-grab.  It can be called a weak and/or pale imitation of the original (whose connections to it are tenuous at best). 

Yep, let me call God's Not Dead 2 all that, and so much less.

Teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) is a Christian who has a pretty strong, positive outlook on life.  She invigorates her history class with games and activities, but then runs afoul of parents and the school administration when a student asks her about Jesus Christ and any similarity between the teachings of Christ and the actions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Grace's measured answer (going so far as to say 'the author of Matthew' as opposed to just 'Matthew') doesn't sit well with at least one student, who sent a text to someone, who in turn got in touch with school officials.  The fact that Grace quoted Scripture at all is cause enough to suggest she was proselytizing and thus should be dismissed.  As it happens, she's a union member, so she gets a union-paid attorney.

Tom Endler (Jesse Metcalfe) is not a Christian, but he is willing to take the case (or rather, is assigned the case by the union).  His only interest is in winning, and questions like faith are of no interest.  Come to think of it, the case isn't either: with a permanent stubble and slightly disheveled look, Tom is no one's idea of Perry Mason.

The prosecution is Peter Kane (Ray Wise), who I think is with the ACLU and wants to prove once and for all that 'God is dead'.   As this goes to a jury, the jury selection process ensnares Pastor Dave (David A.R. White), the minister from the last film.  He doesn't want to be on the jury, nor does he want to answer the 147+ questions new believer Martin Yip (Paul Kwo), also from the last movie, has.

However, serve he must, and as the trial continues we can see he has troubles of his own.  The city has now requested that pastors hand over copies of their sermons for review, and Pastor Dave, not the most enthusiastic of people, submits a letter stating he won't turn his sermons over instead.

At the center of Grace's trial is Brooke (Hayley Orrantia), a girl who lost her brother and is searching for answers.  Her parents would sooner brush their son's memory under the carpet, but Brooke is still struggling with his death.  She discovers that he has been reading the Bible and come to accept Christ, but never told his humanist parents before he was killed in a car accident.  Brooke too accepts Christ and sides with Grace.

Dave (as a pastor the juror everyone thinks would be most sympathetic to Grace) suffers appendicitis during the trial, forcing him to go to the hospital and bringing in an alternate.  Tom brings in Biblical experts like Lee Strobel and J. Warner Wallace (playing themselves in cameo roles) to argue that Jesus was a historic figure and thus an appropriate subject in a history class.  Brooke's dramatic testimony for Grace backfires when Kane uses her testimony to suggest that Grace has been trying to convert her.

Tom, finally clean-shaven and well-dressed, takes a dramatic step by putting Grace on the stand and making her a hostile witness.  Her tearful testimony about how she could not deny Christ has enough power to sway the jury to rule in her favor (and Grace is surprised to see that the alternate juror, who looks like a punk rocker, has a cross tattoo on the back of her neck, suggesting that despite appearances she is a Christian).  Covering the trial is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), also from the last movie, a former atheist who is now in remission from the cancer that caused her a crisis of faith.

In a post-credit scene, Pastor Dave is arrested for not turning his sermons over.

At first, I was disposed to be gentle towards God's Not Dead 2 (and despite what I heard somewhere, giving this movie the title God's Still Not Dead sounds a bit silly, almost deliberately blasphemous and taunting).  It wasn't until the post-credit scene that I finally decided that it was one step too far for me.

I've always been an 'art before theology' reviewer (in the interest of full disclosure, I am an evangelical Christian).  As such, when a film is weak, I will call it as such even if I were to find it from fellow believers (few people have been as hard on the Kendrick Brothers as I have been). 

This post-credit scene bothers me for two reasons.  One, it suggests that there will or could be a God's Not Dead 3 (which to me is flat-out insulting in that it violates one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking: Never End Your Movie By Suggesting There Will Be A Sequel).  Even if I could live with this kind of open ending, the fact that it couldn't be included at the end of the movie itself rather than have it be a tease after the credits roll (despite the fact that this scene is featured in the trailer) meant that people who left during the credits would miss this and leave puzzled as to why Pastor Dave's arrest wasn't in the movie.

It's one thing for a Marvel movie to have a post-credit scene (even if I personally don't like it).  That's been established as part of their repertoire.  It's another to have it in a film that attempts to send a message about courage of your convictions.

There is plenty that sinks God's Not Dead 2.  First and foremost are the performances.  Director Harold Cronk (who returns along with cowriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Sullivan) brought some shockingly bad moments and led the few good actors in the mix into showing all but no or one emotion.  Hart, who can act, is perpetually sad despite her character supposedly being an optimist.  Metcalfe is pretty, but his turn as a dramatic attorney feel so amateurish.

Kwo still cannot get past that eager persona he had from God's Not Dead (apart from a scene where his father makes an unexpected appearance who ends up slapping his son when Martin refuses to deny Christ).  A quick mention of Josh Wheaton appears to tie things together (and explain Shane Harper's absence), but wouldn't Martin and Pastor Dave know each other by now?

As a side note, other elements from the first film (like the Muslim convert who got kicked out of her home) never get a mention.

Subconsciously or not, the casting of Wise as the 'evil' lawyer was a brilliant move.  I don't know if the producers were aware that Wise literally played the Devil (in the short-lived television series Reaper) and the incestuous demon-possessed murderer on Twin Peaks (sorry if that's a spoiler...Laura Palmer was killed by her father while under the control of a demon).  Who better to play the antagonist than the Devil himself (unless it's Tom Ellis from Lucifer, but I digress).

Wise, along with all the actors save White, show why God's Not Dead 2 is a weak film.  There's no subtlety in their performances (Wise, for example, is always evil with a capital E).  This lack of subtlety pushes the film down, as a more deft touch, a more nuanced way of presenting the case (figuratively and literally) would have gone a long way.

It's interesting that White, the most openly-Christian of the cast (one who has had a long history with the Christian film industry) is the only one who appears to be a real person.  That is because Pastor Dave has flaws: he's cynical, jaded, slovenly, sometimes cranky but beneath that a man of deep faith. 

Pastor Dave is allowed to be human.  Everyone else appears to be a walking symbol.

Some moments are downright hilarious (Brooke's sudden emergence to the court should have people laughing at how clunky it was). 

It's a real shame because some of the points that the film makes (such as those from Strobel and Wallace) would perhaps be better received if presented in a better forum. 

There were many things God's Not Dead 2 could have done to make it a better film.  It could have focused on Martin's character as he grows in his faith with Pastor Dave helping him.  It could have brought the Pastor Dave story up-front.  Instead, by going for the trial of a teacher who, to my mind, said something so innocuous it wouldn't have raised any eyebrows, let alone a scandal, God's Not Dead 2 goes down as an unnecessary sequel.  At the very least, it could have been better, and that is perhaps the film's biggest sin.

I was going to give it a mild C-, but the post-credit scene, with its vague suggestion of a God's Not Dead 3, was too much for me.