Saturday, July 24, 2021
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
“God Help The Tyrannical Russian Agent Murderer/Brainwasher Who Comes Between Me And My Sister…"
By Jonas Schwartz
After years of speculation and promise from the MCU, the standalone Black Widow has finally reached theaters -- and, for an additional fee option, on Disney+. The action film rests solely on the high caliber cast and without them, the pedestrian writing and direction would have dragged the film to the depths of the hollow DC films. Oscar® winner Rachel Weisz, Stranger Things, star David Harbour, and wunderkind Florence Pugh work with Scarlett Johansson to keep audiences captivated.
In 1995 Ohio, a typical American family receives the signal that the jig is up. It turns out none of the “family” are blood-related, but an active Russian sleeper cell. They have been discovered by S.H.I.E.L.D, and escape to Cuba for a meetup with their leader, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), to pass along the intel they stole. He sends the father-figure, Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (Harbour), and the mother-figure, Melina Vostokoff/Black Widow (Weisz), back to Russia and the two little girls to the mysterious “Red Room’ to be trained and turned into assassins Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) and Yelena Belova (Pugh).
The film flashforwards to the time between Captain America: Civil Wars and Avengers: Infinity Wars, where Natasha is currently wanted by the government for the ramifications of breaking the Sokovia Accords along with Steve Rogers/Captain America. Her former “sister” Yelena pulls Natasha back into a mission regarding fellow Black Widow agents, mind-controlled by a nefarious former enemy. The two break their surrogate father out of Russian prison and rendezvous with their surrogate mother in an off-the-boards mission to save Earth from an evil plot of world domination.
Directed by newcomer Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok and Godzilla Vs Kong), the film lacks a compelling storyline, and the action scenes are underwhelming. Black Widow’s biggest problem is its lack of urgency. The current film takes place long behind where the MCU is currently residing. Audiences must re-remember the consternations of Captain America: Civil Wars and follow a character who died several films ago. Had the film been made during Phase 3 before Infinity Wars, it would have had more impact. As it is now, only the post-credit sequence (really the best moment in the entire film) takes place in the current MCU world. When one goes back and re-binges the MCU films, their hearts and minds are focused on the tasks at hand, but to have a new film act as a prequel of a protagonist who has now passed away, feels like an also-ran
So, is Black Widow worth watching? Without question. Because of the performances. Weisz, Harbour, Johansson, and especially Pugh seep subtext and unwritten cohesion into the film as they deal with past rejections, betrayals, and frustrations, and attempt to re-create a familial bond that had many years ago been thrusted on them for purposes against the United States. Edit out the chases, the explosions, the double and triple-crosses, turn off the volume completely, and you still have a family drama as in-depth as a Eugene O’Neill play. It is just not from the dialogue, but it’s all there in those talented actors’ eyes.
Sunday, July 18, 2021
Saturday, July 17, 2021
Wednesday, July 07, 2021
While never quite the lean, ruthless thrill machine that its blockbuster 1984 predecessor was, Terminator 2: Judgment Day boasts other delights and virtues. For one thing, it continues the story of the frequently imperiled Connors with stirring intensity and amazing pyrotechnics and stunts.
And -- perhaps more significantly -- it provides the genre one of its most amazing and influential villains: Robert Patrick as the T-1000, a shape-shifting, CGI-morphing leviathan.
I still vividly recall seeing this film theatrically in 1991 and being blown away not just by Patrick’s steady, focused performance, but also by the elaborate and confident special effects presentation of the character.
Patrick carries his strength not merely in his narrow, athletic form (a far cry from the bulging, super-muscular Schwarzenegger) but in his predatory, all-seeing eyes, which showcase enormous power and drive.
If Robert Patrick were not completely convincing in his role, this movie wouldn’t work, plain and simple. But he’s up to the task, and thus creates a classic villain. A true testament to his powerful presence is the fact that throughout the film, Arnold truly seems imperiled and outclassed by his enemy. Given Arnold's size and weight advantage over Patrick, that's an astounding accomplishment.
In terms of mechanics, the T-1000 was created through the twin techniques of morphing and warping. Morphing is described as the "seamless transition" between two images or shapes, and generally uses points in common (like the shape of a nose, or a mouth...) as the basis for the transition.
And once more, this lesson fits in with the film's real life historical context: 1991 was the year of the first Gulf War, the first televised war which saw the deployment of precision or "surgical strikes" on enemy targets.
Underneath the impressive Defense Department briefings on the War -- replete with stunning camera imagery of bombs striking targets -- the truth was evident. Our automated weapons had made a quantum leap forward in accuracy and destructive power since the Vietnam War Era. The Terminator (and SkyNet too) thus did not seem so far out of reach, given the (automated) tech we saw deployed in Desert Storm. Today, we are even further down that road with our automated Predator drones and the like.
And again, Cameron was on the vanguard of a movement in cinema here. The 1990s represented the era of the great self-reflexive genre movie, from efforts such as John Carpenter's In The Mouth of Madness to Wes Craven's New Nightmare and the popular Scream saga. Part of this Terminator sequel's appeal rests strongly in the creative fashion that it re-shuffles the cards of the Terminator deck to present new outcomes, and new twists and turns. The film gently mocks the franchise and the cultural obsession with "political correctness," transforming the Terminator into a "kinder, gentler" model who only shoots out kneecaps.
Facing defeat and destruction in the 21st century, SkyNet sends another Terminator into the past to destroy resistance leader John Connor.
This time, however, the attacking machine is even more advanced than before: a T-1000 (Robert Patrick) made of "poly-mimetic" alloy and a machine that can assume the shape of any human being it physically "samples."
The T-800 is programmed not only to defend Connor from the T-1000, but to obey the ten year old's (Furlong) every command. This quality comes in handy when the T-1000 attempts to "acquire" Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), now incarcerated at the Pescadero mental hospital, and John orders the T-800 to mount a rescue operation.
Sarah attempts to kill Dyson in cold blood to prevent the dark future from coming to fruition, but John and the Terminator stop her and propose a different course. They will destroy all of Dyson's working, including the prototype chips (left over from the 1984 Terminator).
The mission is successful, but Dyson dies in the attempt. Finally, the T-1000 re-acquires the Connors, and the T-800 must put his life on the line to stop an opponent of far greater strength and abilities. At stake is the future of the human race itself.
Although overly-long and somewhat heavy-handed at times, Terminator 2 still works nimbly as a self-reflexive thriller that dances a veritable ballet on the audience’s knowledge of the first film.
For instance, as in the first film, this sequel opens with two men appearing from the apocalyptic future. One is thin and lean, and very human-looking. The other is the pumped-up juggernaut Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Because of the earlier film, viewers are conditioned to expect Schwarzenegger as villain again, and look for the Michael Biehn-ish Robert Patrick to be a sympathetic hero. Of course, the opposite is true instead. Our pre-conceived beliefs are used against us.
Here, Sarah sets out to murder a man named Miles Dyson (Joe Morton) before he can complete SkyNet, the system that ultimately destroys mankind and births the terminators. In essence then, Sarah is adopting the approach of the machines she hates so much; killing a person BEFORE that person actually commits a crime. Just as SkyNet sent back a Terminator in 1984 to murder Sarah before she gave birth to John, so does Sarah endeavor to kill Dyson before he gives birth, in a very real sense, to SkyNet.
The implication of this approach, of course, is that Sarah -- in preparing for the future -- has sacrificed the very thing worth fighting for, her humanity itself.
Terminator 2 very much concerns Sarah's loss of humanity, and her opportunity to re-discover it, in large parts due to her son, John. As the movie begins, Sarah is lost and overcome with pain about the future that awaits mankind. But John ultimately teaches Sarah that it is okay to hope again, that the future is "not set," and that there is "no fate but what we make."
In Terminator 2, young John makes Schwarzennegger’s emotionless machine promise not to kill any more humans, and the compromised Terminator spends the remainder of the film shooting up cops’ knee caps. This is quite funny, and it’s deliberately on point with what was happening in the culture of the nineties. In other words, it's inventive, unconventional and politically-correct all at the same time. It's not the eighties anymore, and Arnold has, in a sense, been domesticated. At least a little...
Like so many horror films of the 1990s, Terminator 2 also concern the American family and the modern changes in the shape of the American family. Sarah Connor comes to the conclusion that instead of providing her boy, John, a flesh-and-blood, human father figure, the Terminator played by Arnold is the sanest answer in an insane world. The Terminator won’t grow old, won’t leave, and will never hurt John. He will always be there for the boy, she realizes, and in vetting this idea, the movie states something important about men and machines.
Children do not boast ideologies or political parties, and do not care about issues like nationalism. They are collateral damage in any such bloody conflict, and the prominent placement of the playground -- the domain of the child -- throughout the film makes this point abundantly plain.
Monday, July 05, 2021
A Quiet Place, Part II:
The Kick-Ass Kids Are Alright
By Jonas Schwartz
A Quiet Place, Part II, which has already been a bonanza at the post-lockdown box office, arrives on Paramount Plus on July 12, and John Krasinski has managed to make lightning strike twice with this spine-tingling second film. Part IIcaptures the horror and anxiety of the first film while building up its characters’ growth and setting up for all-out war in a future Part III.
The sequel (or second in the eventual trilogy) focuses on how the events of the first film have forced the Abbott’s children, Marcus (Noah Jupe) and particularly Regan (Millicent Simmonds) to step up after the death of their father, Lee (Krasinski). Though their mother (Emily Blunt) continues to be a force of strength for the family, with her caring for an infant child, one whose screams could lead the vicious creatures right to them, the narrative relies on Regan’s resilience and Marcus’s slow but essential maturity in this new age.
The film cleverly begins in the past, the first day the alien monsters drop to earth and attack. The audience is reminded of the past, with Lee Abbott still the quick-thinking leader of the family, and is even drawn back to the original film’s horrific opening by Lee’s trip to the same 5-and-10 store in THIS prologue. The first scene gives a glimpse of other countries under attack and introduces the townspeople who will be the aliens’ first victims. The prologue also establishes an important new character to the sequel, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who could become a major antagonist or substitute patriarch.
Director Krasinski, who also wrote the script, quickly flashes forward to moments after the original film has ended and Lee has already sacrificed himself to save his family. Almost immediately, he brings the family to dire straits and then quicky separates them, which gives each character an opportunity to suit up and not just be a dead weight on the family. The resourceful Regan — whose deafness becomes an asset — takes the helm quickly, like a short-stack Sigourney Weaver, venturing out, testing her enemies, and seeking not only escape but hope for a monster-free world. Marcus takes a slower path that resembles Barbara, the catatonic victim of Night of the Living Dead. Tasked with keeping his infant brother safe, he makes jaw dropping mistakes, thinks only on instinct (panic actually), and puts everyone in danger. But the film has hope in the new man of the house’s eventual initiative.
The final act expertly juxtaposes the separated characters’ actions so that, though each is miles from the other, they subconsciously work together as a unit to destroy the menace. It is agile use of cross-cutting, sound, and narrative ingenuity.
Though supported by a talented cast, Simmonds steals the film as the teenager who accesses her limitations and uses them as a weapon. She is casting central’s perfect version of a damsel in distress — small, innocent, hearing impaired — but she’s 100 percent modern Samurai warrior and is exciting to follow.
As in many middle entries in a trilogy, A Quiet Place, Part II shifts the story only slightly askew to keep the audience intrigued for the climax of the final film. For that reason, much of this film will need to be reexamined after watching Part III in the future. Because so little is still understood — How many creatures actually crashed on earth? Are they the strategic antagonists or merely hench-monsters to something even more nefarious? How has the rest of the world dealt with this invasion? — the meat of the story may still come later. A Quiet Place, Part II gives enough of a bridge to invest the audience in things to come.
Saturday, July 03, 2021
Thursday, July 01, 2021
Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Independence Day (1996) remains one of the big “event” movies of the 1990's, a sci-fi blockbuster of monumental, almost unimaginable proportions. The crowd-pleasing film successfully tapped into the decade’s unending fascination with aliens and UFOs (The X-Files, for example) and significantly augmented that interest too, resulting in a slew of further alien films and TV programs from Dark Skies (1996) to Men in Black (1997).
Of all the Emmerich genre fare, I’m most fond of 1994’s Stargate, as it seems to strike the right balance between spectacle and intelligence. After that film’s release, the scales in further efforts kept tipping towards spectacle and away from brains, and so the ensuing films suffer mightily for the imbalance.
The people of planet Earth watch with anxiety and wonder as three-dozen alien saucers descend from orbital space to take up positions over cities around the globe. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former jet pilot in Desert Storm, advises calm, but new information from genius cable repair man David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) suggests the alien ships have initiated a countdown and are preparing a coordinated attack.
For a film about such a terrifying topic – an alien invasion – Independence Day frequently plays thing...light. At least a half-dozen major supporting characters in the film are defined by their shtick. Judd Hirsch plays a nagging Jewish Dad, Julius Levinson, and his lines and delivery are pure Borscht Belt ham-bone. Harvey Fierstein plays another kitschy character, Marty, who hams it up and makes jokes about his therapist and his (presumably overbearing...) mother. Harry Connick Jr. portrays a cocksure pilot who provides the film at least one dopey gay joke.
While I have real disdain for much of the writing and characterization in Independence Day, I do feel that the film's visuals often still shock, and often still carry real emotional resonance. One shot, set on July 3rd, reveals the Statue of Liberty toppled, face down in the harbor...a massive saucer hovering low in the sky. Colored in autumnal browns, this is a terrifying composition of American culture annihilated.
It’s tough indeed to compete with the amazing Statue of Liberty imagery of Planet of the Apes, yet this moment in Independence Day remains quite upsetting. The film is also anxiety-provoking in the way it reveals American military might crushed before a more technologically-advanced enemy. The battle sequences, the nuclear option, and other heavy moments are all deeply scary because one realizes that if America can’t save the world…the world ain’t getting saved. Indeed, Independence Day plays up the alien threat so successfully in terms of spectacular visuals and special effects that there’s almost no way the scripted, climactic victory can ring true. It’s like we’ve slipped into an alternate movie or something.
The first half of Independence Day is undeniably the strongest, as alien saucers push through storm and cloud fronts, and emerge over our cities, casting dark shadows upon bewildered and amazed populations. These moments continue to impress, and pack an almost visceral gut punch. We’ve all wondered if, one day, we’ll wake up to something like this imagery…a new dawn in which we learn definitively we are no longer alone. As much as I deride Independence Day’s silly humor and bad dialogue, I have no quibbles whatsoever with the way that these scenes of “arrival” are vetted. As I said in my introduction, many of these scenes still carry a staggering punch.
The same idea is presented in the film in the (positive) character of President Whitmore. Before the alien crisis, he is viewed not as a warrior, but as a “wimp.” He can’t even get his Crime Bill passed by a hostile Congress. Whitmore laments that “it’s just not simple, anymore” and that people don’t seem to understand that compromise is the only path towards moving everyone ahead, together. He then works with the nations of the world to defeat the aliens, and in the process transforms an American holiday into an Earth holiday. Again, the message implicit in Independence Day is that we can apply ourselves to solve big problems, not just alien invasions. Why can’t we all band together to keep our neighbors and our neighbors' children from starving? Or to eliminate poverty? Once we acknowledge our common humanity, petty partisan differences shouldn’t really matter, should they?
In this sense, Independence Day -- set in part on July 4th -- acknowledges a new, evolved brand of patriotism. It is a patriotism not merely to party or to one nation, but to all of humanity. As a fan of Star Trek and a person who believes we can achieve great things if we sometimes accept compromise, I appreciate the film’s ultimate message of hope about human nature. This consistently-applied theme almost mollifies my concerns about the film’s ridiculous and ill-conceived conclusion, and the surfeit of characters who spew cliché after cliché, bad joke after bad joke. Almost, but not quite. Still, I know I'm spitting in the wind against an 800 million dollar blockbuster, a veritable entertainment machine.
In “Valley of the Man-Apes,” Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla ride through Death Canyon when they spy intelligent ape creatures digging in the dese...