Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018): One Scruffy Looking Nerf Herder

Prequels and Star Wars have a tension filled relationship. Which is understandable, considering the reception of the prequel trilogy. Still, say what you want about Episodes I, II & III – and plenty of people have – but they at least followed a story that had some potential. To see the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader sounds like an intriguing idea. There’s a clear structure one can see for how this would go down, though the execution of it has lead to plenty of enraged debate for nearly two decades. By contrast, Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t really have much of a progression it can take hold of for its titular character Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). Knowing the progression he goes on during the original trilogy, Han Solo needs to stay a selfish smuggler in order for the later journey to make any narrative sense. He can’t learn to be a selfless individual here only to learn the same thing as he surprises the audience by helping Luke destroy the Death Star. Sorry for spoiling a 41 year old film, but the point still stands; a young Han Solo movie has no real right to exist. So, does Solo: A Star Wars Story end up beating this inherent critical stumbling block in concept or not?

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Quite frankly… no. Writers LawrenceJonathan Kasdan along with director Ron Howard – well, final director Ron Howard – constantly struggle to walk the line between keeping Han a rogue and the hero the film ultimately needs, but never quite settle on how to do so. Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us so much of his back story, a child slave on the planet Corellia who ended up joining the Empire’s military as a young lad and teaming up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to become a smuggler. All very early in the film. Yet, none of it really earns much of a right to exist or add on what we already knew beyond filling unnecessary gaps. “Oh, that’s why Chewie owes Han a life debt!” “Oh that’s how he got that last name!” “Oh that’s how he became so good with using a blaster!” Great… but did any of this make Han Solo a more complete version of what he already was; a scoundrel with charm? No. It’s just there to give us context for what we didn’t need.

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If anything, it deflates what used to be a mysterious background one could project for themselves based on Harrison Ford’s actions and George Lucas/several other people’s words. It all turns Han into a misunderstood loner hero rather than a plucky and selfish charmer we met at the Cantina on Tatooine. We’re front loaded with answering questions and tying up loose ends really early into Solo to the point where when we finally get the halfway decent heist film that lifts up the second half, it’s too late. We’ve been inundated with a barrage of underwhelming revelations that seem to take a face value sensibility to moments that feel like they should be charming nods and winks. If Solo was far more self contained an adventure that didn’t aim to expose Han’s past, it would probably be a far more engaging character. The onset snafus that occurred with original directors/current executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller shouldn’t have much weight on the film overall, but one can tell during any of the larger comedic set pieces fall flat and awkward in that first half. Not really helped by the way cinematographer Bradford Young puts an a grey filter to disguise the shiny surfaces in order to vaguely remind people of the rich grime aesthetic of the original trilogy.

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None of this is really the fault of Alden Ehrenreich. A talented young actor who is capable of delivering his own infectious charms in films like Hail Caesar, Ehrenreich is really trying hard to avoid doing a flat out Ford impression while still sprinkling in some of the delivery that made Han one of the more iconic cinematic characters of the 20th century. It’s an impossible task to be asked to replicate an iconic persona at his absolute prime as an actor in a prequel film and Alden handles it about as well as he can. Yet, that leash still looms high with how much the script for Solo desires to make us remember the Han we knew and loved even if Alden wants to make his own. A constant tug and pull that damns an earnest if doomed task from the start. There are effective moments for Han here and there. As unnecessary as it is, the meet up with Chewie made watchable thanks to a physical chemistry that Ehrenreich and Suotamo have as the space duo. Yet, Chewie’s own struggles with trying to get his people out of slavery and earn a score bring to light the major downturn of Solo. One flaw so crucially fatal that it turns the lead into an albatross around the film’s neck; Han is the sun this universe revolves around, yet the planets and asteroids that sweep into its path are far more interesting than he ever can be.

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One of these characters is Han’s mentor of sorts Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a thief who has seen plenty of action. You can see why he would be curious to the initial spark of spunk in Han’s eyes, but with the history clearly shown through his actions in the world of smuggling and some pretty big moments with his significant other Val (Thandie Newton), one slowly starts to lose the actual thread of connection between him and Han as things roll along, especially when a heist film of sorts like this hinges on ambiguity rather than a lack of believability in either trust or distrust rather than what feels like ambivalence between the two. Same goes for Han’s Corellian gal Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Clarke is given the task of attempting to be a galactic femme fatale for Han to seek back after an escape gone awry, who later has gone through some changes and being under the thumb of a generic space gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) that makes one pine for the authentic weirdness of Jabba the Hutt as he acts like far more of a modern hot trigger gangster than anything authentically of the Star Wars galaxy. Qi’ra could have been far more of a damsel love interest and even has worrying shades of this early on. Yet, when her loyalties become more murky and her ability prowess as a femme fatale come to play, there are shades of a far more interesting character. One who’s journey could have made for a great Star Wars story all its own. Yet, we mostly see her as an accomplice and source of will-they-won’t-they tension to tease for more Solo films as Han sashays into a room.

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Such sashays are irrelevant once Han meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), a fellow smuggler who exudes far more charisma and has enough intriguing characteristics that ooze out of corners during his scenes to make everyone in the theater internally scream “Why wasn’t this a Lando film?!” The real difference between Lando and Solo is simply that while we do know the ultimate big turn of Lando, he’s far more of a blank slate to add things onto. This includes fun details like a closet full of elaborate capes or his sly attempts to cheat at cards with smooth nonchalance. Glover gives the unbridled confidence needed for Lando without feeling too much like an overt impression as much as a general sly mood from which anyone would be mulled over by. Similar credit deserves to go to Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3, a droid with fierce aims at spreading independence for her kind. She’s feisty, intuitive and spunky in ways no other droid character has ever been in this series. The two have far more of a believable rapport than anyone else in the film that makes us quiver even further in demand for a Lando spin off movie involving these two. But don’t worry. Han is there to… be Han. So you don’t have to worry about all that pesky “potential” off to the sides being squandered.

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It may seem like I hate Solo, but the frustration really lies with the fact that there are wonderful bursts of energy and creativity on occasion. Most of these characters do get moments to spotlight their potential. Mainly in a scene involving a rather famous moment from Han’s past that surprisingly packs a lot of character beats, elaborate fight choreography and more than a few bits of heist staging into a chaotic but highly entertaining sequence of events. It’s the one time where all the people in this ensemble truly bounce off each other incredibly well and give the illusion that this will continue to the remaining runtime. Yet, by the time that sequence ends, the spectacle of Solo A Star Wars Story really begins to wear thin. There’s some shenanigans in the third act that elicits minor thrills, but nothing even really culminates that well. Set pieces like the big train heist are fine on their own, but the lack any kind of weight not just because we know where the characters will ultimately go, but because we’re centered around a character who constantly meanders between referencing what we know and teasing a progression that can’t take place given who the character is makes this a rather forgettable effort. Something even a few Rebellion teases and a curious surprise cameo couldn’t fix.

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It’s a tough spot to be in. Almost as if Disney and Lucasfilm shouldn’t have put themselves in that place to begin with. Solo A Star Wars Story obviously wants to be a romp through the galactic underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. One that is teased with some rather impressive creature effects and a few hints to other potential spin offs. Yet, even for being something more light, there’s isn’t too much new going on. There’s a bit of an upgrade in terms of the tech of the original trilogy, but not much of an expansion on details about the criminal underworld or some of these new characters to make itself stand out. These are similar problems that effected the previous Star Wars spin off feature Rogue One. Then again, Rogue One actually dared to focus on new characters who weren’t what we traditionally saw in this galaxy far far away. Some are better than others, but at least it tried to build more focus on people we weren’t familiar with. Which is a far more noble effort than Solo, a film that has the potential to explore new avenues and fun side tracks in this universe yet leans on the familiarity of its titular character revealing more about his past like Tiny Tim on a crutch. Keep in mind that I’m not against referencing moments from the original trilogy or exposing more about the people we knew and loved from this series. However, if those references don’t do much to shed intriguing new light on that subject, what’s the point in going back? Why are we peeling back a layer of Han’s past? It turns out… for very little.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Dice Rear View Mirror Hangers

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Star Wars A Jedi Holiday Story – Double Edged Double Bill Episode 3

Double Edged Double Bill is all Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars! To celebrate the release of Solo A Star Wars Story, Adam Thomas and Thomas Mariani have brought in their first guest Sam Brutuxan! The trio’s first feature is Return of the Jedi, the third entry in the original trilogy that’s celebrating it’s 35th anniversary. Yes there’s Ewoks, bored Harrison Ford and puppets galore! Then, the team takes on the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special and lives to tell the tale. But not without a trinity of Harvey Kormans, Wookie porn and a performance by Jefferson Starship! Take your first step into a larger world and listen now here!

To stay up to date about the podcast, follow us on Twitter @DEDBpod and send us feedback at doubleedgeddoublebill@gmail.com! The podcast will be on iTunes shortly!

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Returning To The Jedi: Star Wars Episode VI 35 Years Later

The Star Wars original trilogy is pretty sacred text to those obsessed with a galaxy far far away. In a modern world where the prequel trilogy is an infamous memory and the current Disney run is hotly contested to say the least, the Star Wars trilogy that enchanted audiences in the late 70s – the early 80s is still largely considered to be the holy scripture of the franchise by fans. Star Wars revolutionized the sci-fi fantasy genre for decades to come. Empire Strikes Back – while receiving a lukewarm reception upon initial release – is often considered one of the best sequels of all time by film dorks and average joes alike. The third entry in the original trilogy Return of the Jedi is a bit of a different story.

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In an age before Star Wars was close to the 21st century, Return of the Jedi was the black sheep. A concluding chapter which represented how a series that appealed to all audiences was mainly targeting the younger set and leaving anyone above the age of 12 in the dust. It’s filled with an extensive amount of puppets, furry teddy bear creatures and dumb sight gags that would make adults scratch their heads and older kids feeling bored. Jedi became the punching bag for a disappointing end to a trilogy for a few decades. As Dante Hicks once said in 1994’s Clerks, “Empire had the better ending. Luke loses his hand and finds out Vader is his father. Han is frozen and captured by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. Just like in real life. All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets.”

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Yet, Jedi has has gained some amount of respect in the resulting three and a half decades since it was released. With the harsh backlash against the prequel trilogy and the rather divisive reception of the new Disney era films by the fanbase, Jedi looks less disappointing even with its faults. But that’s only really in comparison. Fans still love to prod and poke at Ewoks, Boba Fett’s disappointing end or the tonal shifts at play. And those criticisms have some merit. However, even with those faults squarely in mind, Jedi is not only an overall rousing finale to most of the threads from the first two films, but arguably has the best subplot of any of them. You read that right. This jumbled mess manages to close out the original series with a bang few other trilogies have managed to achieve. And I’m not just talking about the second Death Star.

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On a superficial level, there’s a major upping of the ante with the creatures and production design on display. Jabba the Hutt’s palace is a dingy yet incredibly detailed nightmare den of scum and villainy, taking all the promise of the Cantina in the original film and fleshing it out to a larger galaxy context. We only get so long with Jabba, but we get a sense that this is a true crime slum of debauchery and reckless abandon that has no rule beyond Jabba’s word. His excess and slimy lackadaisical attitude say so much with so little. This contrast between hedonism and small details breaths life into everyone involved at the palace. Who could forget the simple moment of a trainer mourning the loss of his giant Rancor monster? Some have said this awkwardly contrasts with the Endor scenes, but it feels more like clear direct contrast. Going from a dimly lit land of sin living in their filth to a pure society of green happy creatures working to save their ecosystem feels like a natural transition. All with the over arching apex of the Empire looming overhead with an even larger Death Star and a spectacularly elaborate spin on the original trench run to boot. Showcasing how all of this exists in the same galaxy and can only be controlled by the powers of The Force in the form of Mark Hamill,’s Luke Skywalker.

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The major theme of Return of the Jedi is one that spills over into the other Star Wars films; confrontation with your past. Luke Skywalker’s major arc throughout the entire trilogy – and into the sequel films – is coming to terms with what has happened before and moving on from it. By Return of the Jedi, Luke has to face several aspects of his past before embracing what he never knew to be true until the ending of Empire; his father Darth Vader. He returns to his home of Tatooine to save his newfound friends, says goodbye to Yoda & Obi-Wan after the give him the final truth of his growth & abilities as a Jedi and returns to the rebuilt version of the battle station he blew up to finally confront his enemy and progenitor. We see just how far Luke has come here, from wide eyed innocent farm boy to eager reckless Jedi to calm yet worried master. Even with the time jumps, Luke has formed into a true cloth Jedi. One who handily destroys The Rancor and invades Jabba’s palace of immersive creatures without batting an eye in intimidation. Yet, he still has his hesitations and worries. About the future of his friends or his ability to fight against Vader. There’s deliberation into his actions, even when it’s considering doubt over his abilities or vengeance in his heart that nearly consumes him. It shows that Luke is far more human than previous Jedi later depicted in the prequels, which makes him a far more engaging character than most in prior chronology. It’s still to this day the most nuanced performance of Mark Hamill’s career, balancing the affable hero of Luke we know with the newfound sense of determination and occasional lashing out.

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This sense of progression isn’t exclusive to Luke. Lando fully embraces his journey from smuggler and traitor to leader & hero of the rebellion, leading a more diverse fleet against the second Death Star. Leia comes to terms with her lineage, breaks the chains of slavery from one of the galaxy’s biggest crime lords Jabba The Hutt and leads the full on assault against the Empire. A scene between her and Luke that is mostly mean for exposition about their a connection reads as a moment of realization and attempted convincing to bring her brother away from the temptations of the Force. C-3PO even manages to go from translating as a servant for Jabba to a full fledged story telling God for the Ewoks. He manages to provoke the first battle of the Ewoks against the Stormtroopers by sheer distraction right alongside R2-D2. Hell, the Ewoks themselves evolve from a ravenous primitive culture to one based around camaraderie and defensive action. The last one admittedly sounds a bit unintentionally supportive of colonialism, but the Rebellion trusts and respects the Ewoks enough to fight against the Empire as things go on. Some of it may seem contemplatively silly, but the Ewoks use their limited resources to fight a far more advanced Empire in a way that feels like it has a spark of ingenuity while embracing their resources and trusting in the humans of the Empire to help save both their planet and the entire galaxy. It’s especially more clear when you consider Wicket and the others were so close to consuming our heroes.

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The only major character who lacks a character arc in a considerable fashion is Han Solo. It’s clear that Harrison Ford‘s heart isn’t really in this final chapter as blindly flails through the first half and mugs his way through the second half. It’s also clear that George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan – despite clearly wanting to give Han an important role in this finale to the original trilogy – give him essentially a role any of the other rebels could have taken. He’s not really leading to a considerably fashion He’s just sort of there to be a lesser version of the Han we knew and loved from before. No change or evolution… unless fully embracing that Princess Leia has the hots for him is progression. Hell, the best moments involving him showcase Leia’s growth as a character, one being her amazing reversal on the “I Love You/I Know” moment from Empire and her reveal to Han about Luke being her brother. Neither really require much from Ford and so much more from Carrie Fischer.

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However, the more intriguing progression runs through Luke and spills over into Darth Vader himself. Giving this dark ominous representation of intergalactic fascism a moment of redemption could have easily gone awry in the wrong hands. Yet, the combined efforts of James Earl Jones‘ haunted vocal work, David Prowse‘s determined steps in the suit and Sebastian Shaw‘s gasping dying words craft an Anakin Skywalker who goes from seemingly lost under the Vader armor to protruding out for a final act of honest heart. The soul of Star Wars as a saga shines through in any scene between Vader, Luke and Emperor Palpatine. The delicious scenery chewing of Ian McDiarmid is gloriously glowing underneath the iconic robe. Yet, it’s with true malice and purpose as he taunts Luke with the failure of the rebellion & the clear unstoppable power of the Empire, breaking Luke’s concentration and allowing his darker tendencies to cave in. Palpatine embodies all the worst aspects of the of the Sith, having hate shrivel and consume him like a prune of embittered ego.

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This is where director Richard Marquand‘s knack for character based drama really comes in handy, as he puts together what is easily the best lightsaber duel of the series between Vader and Luke. The tension that builds is palpable. With every strike, Luke and Vader clash in ways that echo with resonance and hurt as we know that this is a true fight of family. Father and son fighting not just for their lives, but the souls that bind each other in the ways of The Force. Marquand’s use of negative space creates this darkly immersive battle that slowly encompasses the dark side. Each painful bolt of Palpatine’s lighting energy clearly chills Luke to the bone. Even Vader’s redemption shows off the true hero underneath fighting to save his son with the last bit of life he had in him. It’s tragic, beautiful and one of the more awe inspiring cinematic moments of Star Wars in general. All coming to a head violent head that slowly dissipates into a moment of quiet whispered sadness as Luke sees his father pass into being one with The Force.

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Ultimately, Return of the Jedi is still the overall weaker entry in the original trilogy. It doesn’t have the self contained sense of discovery of the original Star Wars or the most consistent escalation of the themes & characters of Empire. Yet, it still gives the stories of the Skywalkers true closure in a way that constantly goes unsung and underrated. Luke’s final burning of his father is a wonderful climactic shot that says everything. The reign of the Empire has ended for now, but we must honor those who serve as potential heroes even if it’s in their final moments. Redemption is possible, but doesn’t bestow immortality. Setting the stage for hope to blossom. The title fulfills its promise as Vader goes from being a Sith to being a Jedi once again, even if so briefly. It’s something Luke and Leia will permanently have to carry with them throughout life, but they can handle thanks to their own support system of a family they’ve cultivated together. While the new trilogy has yet to confirm if they’ll fulfill something similar with next year’s episode XI, one can only hope it achieves some of the gravitas of Jedi… but also doesn’t turn Finn into the new Han Solo. John Boyega deserves to give a shit

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Deadpool 2 (2018): Maximum Effort Sequel

Warning: This review for Deadpool 2 features a major spoiler that happens during the first act. Otherwise it is spoiler free, but if you want to go in completely blind, you have been warned.

The first Deadpool film really took people by surprise. Mainly for somehow actually happening at all, given a comedic hard R superhero film would come from a major studio. Then for it to make nearly $800 million off a $58 million budget only confused us in the best way possible. Admittedly, upon rewatch the first film doesn’t hold up as well, given the really bland aesthetics of an over budgeted straight to video action film and a relationship that comes off more and more as lame male geek wish fulfillment where the love interest is without any discernible humanity or drive beyond loving our lead with a look back. Yet, it still manages to be watchable thanks to the absolute commitment and charms of Ryan Reynolds as the titular superhuman healer. Now, we have Deadpool 2 to lather us with a much larger budget and bonkers level action comedy set pieces. Does it succeed at upping the ante?

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Well, it definitely shoves everything at the screen, that’s for damn sure. Deadpool 2 takes the “everything but the kitchen sink” route to comedy and action, but without hesitating to throw porcelain in the audience’s face. We start with a pretty blatant reference to Logan and a full on statement of death and regret as a major theme for this sequel as Wade “Deadpool” Wilson as he deals with the loss of his fiancee Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Vanessa was very much a shallow dream girlfriend archetype that always served as underwhelming motivation for Wade to do what he is want to do, only being saved by Boccarin’s chemistry with Reynolds. With Deadpool 2, there is far more actual weight attempted with this relationship, but it never feels that genuine. It’s all to set up Deadpool having a progression, but it feels like trying to progress a slapstick comedy character like Bugs Bunny. Deadpool exists in some sort of middle ground between our world and this continuity fragmented X-Men universe Fox has created, so this seemingly genuine attempt at an arc isn’t given much a subversive twist that serves as commentary for superhero tropes as much as it is just a way of motivating Wade to go on his family based journey and decisions here.

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This is a shame because once this weird underwhelming way of kicking off the plot goes underway, Deadpool 2 manages to have some solid weird ideas at play that make it more ambitious and brazen than its predecessor. Every single frame is filled with either a quick quip, reference or visual joke to try and make the audience laugh. With that many attempts, it doesn’t always work. Deadpool 2 has a tendency to lean on references and overlong gags that can get quite tiresome, especially when it merely requires Deadpool himself to blast off multiple ones in a row at a random straight man that any of the supporting cast who reacts with a mere confused stare. Director David Leitch applies his skills from John Wick to the action scenes in terms of pace and brutal hits, but also takes full advantage of Deadpool’s powers of healing to display some clever action beats that defy the laws of physics. A favorite involves Deadpool using his broken dangling arm to choke Cable (Josh Brolin), who receives the brunt of many of Deadpool’s snipes. Brolin handles the straight man role well, though it isn’t really until the third act that the satiric edge against his rather obvious 90s era generic badass demeanor.

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The best gags really involve characters actually bouncing off of Deadpool with their own personalities. Personalities like Julian Dennison as Russell “Firefist” Collins, an angry confused young mutant who aims to destroy an abusive schoolmaster (Eddie Marsan) who hates mutants. Dennison’s cocksure attempts to appear tough play into his insecurities which parallel Wade’s own. The two make for a fun duo whose separation believably turns and etch out the few genuine emotional moments needed to ground Deadpool 2 in something other than jokes without spilling over into more maudlin territory that other aspects do. Zazie Beetz as the luck based super heroine Domino makes her charm look effortless as she brushes off Reynolds’ snark with her nonchalant ability to walk through a scene and make it all go her way. There’s a feistiness to Zazie that makes her light up every action scene and make even the worst bits of luck turn for the better. It’s such a hard superpower to realize cinematically, but Zazie’s bottomless charisma and Leitch’s knack for visual language do a far better job than expected at bringing it to life.

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This sort of visual language does falter at points, though. Mainly with the editing. On a pure scene-to-scene progression level, there are many points where we just jump from location to location without as much as a suddenly ADRed line to indicate some joking reason why someone has jumped from one location to the next. Even some characters, like Black Tom (Jack Kesy) seem to have far more importance to the characters despite the implied amount of screen time. Part of this may be seeming laziness, but another seems to be editing around the film’s elephant in the room T.J. Miller. Miller reprises his role as Weasel here, which unfortunately put Deadpool 2 in the middle of controversy given Miller’s recent actions in real life. In short, Miller’s role isn’t very substantial, though you can tell that in the editing process that Deadpool 2 tried to cut the part as close to the bone as possible. There’s even a ramp up to a big team moment involving Miller that proceeds… to a scene where Miller is absent and nothing is said of it. It doesn’t make much logical sense, but if it means we get more of over excited cab driver and wanna-be contract killer Dopinder (Karan Soni) stealing scenes as he awkwardly tries to work himself up to being a contract killer to hysterical degrees.

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Ultimately, the general swinging for the fences attitude of Deadpool 2 makes it both a sloppier film than the original and at the same time a funnier one. It revels in the absurd and pulls some more subversive twists and turns than the original ever even attempted. The elements involving building the X-Force in particular build up and pull the rug out from under the audience at every possible turn. It shows that for as unbalanced and underwhelming as X-Men has been as an overall franchise, the two Deadpool films have shown that taking weird chances and doing something different can pay off. The small roles for X-Men characters Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Nega Sonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) have shown far progression in two films than most non-Wolverine/Magneto/Professor X mutants have in a single film, largely thanks to far more defined character work from their actors and even a bit of progressive momentum with Warhead’s sexuality casually displayed here. Let’s just hope this keeps if Disney’s Fox deal gets confirmed we see more risks like this are taken. Or at least we don’t get more of whatever the hell is going on with that main X-Men series.

Rating 3.5 out of 5 Chimichangas

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DOUBLE EDGED DOUBLE BILL EPISODE 2: The Rundown to Miami Connection

For the second episode of Double Edged Double Bill, Adam Thomas and Thomas Mariani are deep diving into the world of action comedies. First, they examine the early career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with 2003’s The Rundown, as the pro-wrestler teams up with Stifler himself Seann William Scott to steal a treasure before Christopher Walken can. WOW! Then, our duo goes crazy for 1988’s Miami Connection, the first ever “intentional action unintentional comedy.” It’ll have you wanting to tae-kwon kick someone in the face, sing in a band and find your long lost parents all at the same time! Listen here.

To stay up to date about the podcast, follow us on Twitter @DEDBpod and send us feedback at doubleedgeddoublebill@gmail.com! The podcast will be on iTunes shortly!

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NEW PODCAST: DOUBLE EDGED DOUBLE BILL!

Some – or perhaps most – of my limited audience here would probably know me from my podcasting work. And those people may have noticed that I’ve been radio silent for the last few weeks. Well, it’s all been in secret preparation for a brand new show I’ve been brewing. It’s… DOUBLE EDGED DOUBLE BILL!

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The premise is simple: each week frequent podcast collaborator Adam Thomas and I will come to the table to randomly select the yin and yang of a double feature. One will have two good movies. The other two bad ones. The both will have to pick a number between one and ten in order to seal their fates for each episode. For our first episode, the topic is films based on Marvel Comics. The good end is represented by the first Iron Man film from 2008. The bad end is represented by Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance from 2012. You can listen to the first episode here!

I’d also like to mention here another announcement for those who may be wondering why this new show was started and why I may not be on the currently on hiatus Horror News Radio as well as other podcasts on the Gruesome Magazine podcast network, which I had been involved with for several years. Well, due to a variety of factors, I decided to leave those shows. I will not be involved with Horror News Radio, Decades of Horror 1980s or Decades of Horror 1990s and Beyond any longer as a regular. I have split on understanding terms with those involved and wish them nothing but the best. Mainly, I just wanted to control my own show free of others on my own terms and about more than just horror films.Don’t worry; horror movies aren’t off the table by any means for Double Edged Double Bill, but sci-fi, fantasy, comedy and even drama are welcome as well in terms of discussion. I hope to have more people than just Adam and myself on Double Edged Double Bill, including many of those on the Gruesome Magazine network. Double Edged Double Bill will aim to be an inclusive environment for varying voices once we get our feet on the ground and many diverse perspectives are welcome.

To stay up to date about the podcast, follow us on Twitter @DEDBpod and send us feedback at doubleedgeddoublebill@gmail.com! The podcast will be on iTunes shortly!

You Were Never Really Here (2018): Taken Aback

Action thrillers rarely give us room to breathe. Liam Neeson doesn’t do much sitting in between taking down henchmen in those Taken films. It’s exhilarating and even fun to watch Neeson or other stars kick ass as former agents that go underground to stop criminals. The sort of fantasy that many men would like to prove they could live under the right circumstances, especially those who would be in someone like Neeson’s relative age range who would have something to prove. “Oh, I could do that and show these young bucks what’s what,” they’d roughly say as they watch an older man kick ass. It’s a principle that’s been in effect since Charles Bronson became the hero with a titular Death Wish in the mid-1970s. Yet, being someone with such a background can take a horrific toll films like these don’t design themselves to focus on. So, the genius of writer/director Lynne Ramsay‘s new film You Were Never Really Here is that it takes such a hyper masculine concept and buries it in the amount of remorse and inescapable terror it deserves to be drenched in.

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The character of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shadow of a man. The title You Were Never Really Here reflects both Joe’s literal ability to disappear from any situation and metaphoric desire to not make a dent. The reasonings behind this aren’t revealed in full detail. It’s mostly through visual stream of consciousness flashes that show Joe has a pretty grim past and he can’t escape it. One that haunts him if he merely looks at people on the street having a good time. The horror of his former life as some sort of soldier or agent isn’t given much detail. If anything, we only see the crucial details that stick out in Joe’s memory. These details are crucial to saying so much with millisecond long shots. Ramsay used similar techniques to get us in the eyes of the main character from We Need To Talk About Kevin. She has such a touch with POV, immersing us in a perspective that makes us understand if not totally empathize with her leads.

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Joe is the perfect example of this. It’s very clear that Joe has seen and done terrible things in his life. His flashbacks reveal the type of man who lives with his mistakes and his scars on a 24/7 cycle. That haunted nature is perfectly embodied by Joaquin Phoenix. His vacant stare and repetitive ticks show off a man who only keeps himself from committing suicide by having a sense of routine and responsibility that he can attach himself to. His relationship with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) is one that keeps him grounded in a human way, mainly because he has a love that is equally mired by a lack of privacy. Yet, there’s a clear respect for his mother. In fact, she seems to be the only person he does respect, which seems to connect to his rough childhood flashbacks and why he has a knack for rescuing those who are illegally trafficked. It’s obviously partially for money, but he’s also working some personal stuff out and through gory as all get out methods.

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Joaquin’s performance and the use of violence in You Were Never Really Here clearly show a reverence for films like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. We follow a lonely brutal man with horrific tendencies that’s been abandoned by society and show off the seedy underbelly of a city and saving a young girl. Joe often wanders the streets in a haze of street lights and his constantly dilapidating mental state to Jonny Greenwood’s ethereal and elegant score. The key difference is that unlike the self righteous and delusional Travis Bickle, Joe isn’t thinking he’s really right at any step of the process beyond his ability to apply blunt force. He’s honestly desperate to find something to cling onto as his world crashes. It’s a human idea that connects him to several of the smaller characters that pop up. There’s one scene Joe shares with a man who’s also sent out to kill that shows how oddly beautiful and tragic the mere idea of comforting someone as they let loose the mortal coil can be. It’s one of the year’s best sequences that’ll stick in memory for ages to come.

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For Joe, the young girl he’s trying to save Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is more of a surrogate for the childhood he lost than an example for him to show he truly is the only sane man in an insane world from his warped perspective. Samsonov is a cipher that pops up here and there, but not in a detrimental fashion. By design, she is a sort of weird holy grail for Joe, but only because he is the only thing he can still grasp at. He finds the idea of saving this girl to be a mere oasis as he wanders the desert of life with no goal in sight. He doesn’t feel he deserves it. If anything, You Were Never Really Here is about a man who acts on a case-by-case basis for every situation he’s in. Sometimes it gets him money, other times he crumbles what little he has left. These decisions often come when his methods fall apart and balance between being naturalistically brutal and otherworldly in beauty thanks to Thomas Townend‘s gorgeous cinematography. It’s a destination that could turn to dirt quickly, but the journey there is fascinating to see unfold because we’re so in Joe’s headspace that we kind of have to find out the end result.

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All of this is to say that Joe isn’t a hero nor does he pretend to be. Joe is merely a man finding a reason to live in a world that has cast him aside. You Were Never Really Here is a wispy ghost of a film, where the gory horror that happens is often presented as honest and ugly yet lingers far more than deaths of henchmen in general. Ramsay uses moments that would be throwaway kills in a Taken film as brutal necessities for the lead in a situation he’s sucked himself into. Joe is in a rut of a personal hell he can’t get out of until he finds a small beacon of light in the form of Nina. Yet, the murky waters Ramsay, Phoenix and the entire crew of You Were Never Really Here takes is to note that… none of this could turn out well. None of this could end up being something that gives Joe or us closure. It’s presented as a small window into a key point in his life. It closes many doors and may leave one slightly ajar with a sliver of light coming through. The light could be hope or just the flashlight on the end of a shotgun. Either way, one can bask in the beauty of that light for at least one gorgeous moment.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Ball Point Hammers

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Evil Dead And Buried: A Toast to Ash Williams

Spoiler Warning: This article will contain heavy spoilers for the Evil Dead franchise, up to and including the series finale of Ash Vs. Evil DeadRead at your own risk.

After 37 years of fighting Deadites in some form or another, cult icon Bruce Campbell has announced that the recently aired series finale of Starz’s Ash Vs Evil Dead is his swan song for the character of Ashley Joana “Ash” Williams. Since 1981’s The Evil Dead, Campbell has been leading a one man crusade as the one-liner spewing fighter of demon possessed humans – or “Deadites” – in the Evil Dead franchise. Through two sequels, a few video games and the previously mentioned TV series, Ash has gone through many trials and tribulations over the course of the few decades. He’s one of the more unique horror protagonists out there. Unlike slasher final girls like Laurie Strode or John Carpenter’s usual Kurt Russell lead macho man, Ash is a more grounded human character. By which I mean he is a straight up coward. A scardy cat hiding behind his boomstick and chainsaw hand.

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On paper, that sounds like an awful character to follow. In most cases, we want a strong determined individual who can face off against monsters with the type of bravery that we don’t normally have on the big screen. Yet, the genius of director Sam Raimi was that Ash’s cowardice was the only thing to ground some of the most surreal horror in cinematic history. Evil Dead as a series consistently tops itself with how bizarre and off the wall horror can be. Friends becoming possessed corpses, old ladies turning into long necked monsters, a clone of yourself spewing from your shoulder. It’s the type of just plain weird horror that would make anyone scream like a namby pamby child with their head cut off. Ash was the audience surrogate that none of the audience wanted to admit was relatable. A guy who got gore all over his face when he tried to do something and is always in a constant struggle with the world around him.

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In that way, I always thought of Ash as the Homer Simpson of horror. Keep in mind I’m going by the more classic version of Homer. A guy of lower level intelligence that always strives to do what’s best, though his lower functioning fight-or-flight response tends to lead him down a more selfish path. At least until he finally achieves self awareness and does the right thing… as best as he can. Ash’s yellow-bellied attitude was often called out by others and lead him to become aware he was being an arrogant boob. Army of Darkness‘ climax thrives on that realization when Sheila (Embeth Davidtz) reminds Ash of the promises he made which he dismisses as “pillow talk.” This moment affords Bruce Campbell his finest acting moment as Ash, not even being able to look at Sheila as he blatantly admits his selfish self preservation instincts. Yet, one can’t blame Ash given what he’s previously gone through, having lost his love and his hand. That can do a lot to crush much interest in returning to fight demons.

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It’s clear that as much as Ash was created by Raimi, Campbell evolved the character into what he was. Initially, he was an obviously meek teen simply trying  sleep with his girlfriend at a cabin. Then – over the course of what would probably only be a few days in the original Evil Dead trilogy – Ash becomes his true self; an idiot savant with a chainsaw. He has simple desires and wants to avoid the inevitable at every turn. His desire for normalcy in a chaotic world mirror any audience member’s desire to have the same kind of stability against the harsh – though less surreal – world around us. Sam Raimi’s impulse to throw whatever the hell he wants at Bruce Campbell to injure or brutalize him for comedic effect is the cartoonish caricature of our own daily struggles. A funhouse mirror for what life throws in our faces. Ash is an everyman, whether we want to relate to how quick he is to run out of a dire situation. Ash’s horrific realization of his duty to fight Deadites in Evil Dead II rings so much truth. It dawns on him that his fate is sealed and must reluctantly stop demons for the rest of his life.

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Yet, the compelling thing about Ash is even if he does run with his tail between his legs, he would inevitably take action when no exit doors did show up. After that Evil Dead II ending, he seeks to find a back door out of this scenario in Army of Darkness. He doesn’t want to face an army of evil in a world he doesn’t know. This didn’t make Ash the most sympathetic hero, but it made him much more than a punching bag. It made him a survivor. The type of hero the world needs whether we or Ash himself wants it to be so. He improves his ability to kick Deadite ass, which ups his skill level and at the same time dooms him to stop evil. Ash is a double edged sword who doesn’t want to accept the reality of what he needs to do as much as he does the glory and stability he keeps searching for.  He’s damned if he helps and damned if he doesn’t, always in an eternal struggle to protect the world.

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It’s something that Ash carries with him right into his middle age on the TV show Ash Vs Evil Dead. Having staved off evil for a decade or so, Ash ironically summons back evil by browsing through his glory days while engaging in a vice or two. This is an Ash who has found his complacency, but is still clearly in fear of making long term commitments. He’s lost too many people to grow attached, so he lives an endless bachelor lifestyle in his trailer. Even those who didn’t die in his hometown of Elk Grove abandon him assuming him a serial killer, including his own father (Lee Majors). Ash knows evil could return at any second, so having a committed life could shatter in moments. Ash vs Evil Dead as a show was always sort of chaotic in terms of its storytelling structure. The nightmarishly wacky sensibility of Ash Vs Evil Dead isn’t one that immediately springs as something that can work for serialized television and some storylines proved this pretty well. Elements like the motivationally wonky Ruby (Lucy Lawless), Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) going from a competent cop to a doomed love interest for Ash during Season 1 or whatever the hell Baal (Joel Tobeck) was trying to do in Season 2 that the series had struggles with completing compelling arcs within the Evil Dead formula.

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The largest exception to this was the new regular characters of Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo), two of Ash’s former warehouse employees who joined his fight against evil. Both represent a modern perspective to play off of Ash’s oafish older tendencies while confronting two sides of Ash’s persona. Pablo often had a reluctance that mirrored Ash’s more cowardly side, but with more loyalty and gumption that made the Deadite killer confront his own less than courageous actions. On the flip side, Kelly is a born fighter whose skills in destroying demons often rivaled Ash himself as the series progressed. Both characters often struggled to find individual arcs, but the combination of all three as “The Ghostbeaters” made for a refreshing spin on the dynamic of the franchise. Ash had found a family that may be dysfunctional, but with an honest connection that was stronger than any Deadite hide he had to slice through.

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Season 3 of Ash Vs Evil Dead improved much of this with the presence of Ash’s long lost daughter Brandy (Arielle Carver-O’Neill). Brandy loses her mother to Deadites in the season premiere, which makes her obviously bitter and less enthusiastic to learn how to defeat Deadites. Ash himself is reluctant to teach her to do so because the responsibility of a daughter changes him. Well, he still drinks and smokes weed, but it changes his approach to doing so when around her. Adding a layer of warmth and responsibility that progresses Ash further than he ever has been. Both characters seek to keep the demons away from her, but both Brandy and Ash ultimately come to terms with who they are and their ability to fight evil at every turn. Even if Brandy comes to term with this well before Ash does. Pablo & Kelly have similar arcs here to become what they are and how they must confront evil, with Pablo embracing his family’s spiritual connections and Kelly returning from limbo after a hot headed act that ignored her compatriots.

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By the series finale, Ash makes another wimpish turn to leaving as a giant monster from another realm is destroying his hometown. Brandy berates him and demands he confront who he is… which Ash takes to heart. Thus, he safely sends his daughter and surrogate kids away to face evil on his own. It’s an impressive and goofy battle that fits the Evil Dead franchise while earning an honest emotional reaction. He willingly sends his stability away in favor of facing what could be a fatal fight. Ash fully accepts his role in the universe and fights off evil with blunt force and earnest sincerity amongst the silliness. While it doesn’t prove to be a fatal bout, Ash’s survival and welcome to the post-apocalyptic world created by the Deadite destruction by a cyborg woman (Jessica Green) works on several levels. The initial intent was obviously to lead into a very different Season 4 for Ash Vs Evil Dead that won’t happen. Another intent is it works as a call back to the original ending of Army of Darkness involving Ash sleeping his way to the apocalypse. Ultimately, it’s Ash knowing that he now has to fight off evil in a world where they have the advantage… and he accepts it with a willing spirit. Especially with the promise of doing so with his little patchwork family. He rides off into the sunset on his beloved 1973 Delta Oldsmobile Delta 88 like a cowboy on his loyal steed. A fantastic way of sending off the character of Ash.

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In the wake of Ash Vs Evil Dead ending, I’ve seen many people take issue with the franchise ending and Campbell hanging up the chainsaw. And I can sympathize. The character proved to still be viable in his middle age in a way that took me off guard in a positive fashion. However, the series had a pretty good run and more importantly the send off proved to be a great one for the character. I’d rather have Campbell leave the character on such a positive progressive note rather than run out of steam. He’s played the character on and off for nearly 40 years. Culminating here feels like the closest possible thing to Ash getting an Unforgiven level send off. His fight will just keep going, even if we don’t see it. Would I want to see Ash fight deadites alongside cyborgs? Sure. But not getting that still leaves us wanting rather than disappointed or tired. Ash’s fight continues off screen, in the hearts, minds and other organs of horror fans everywhere. All of whom can relate to worrying about the demons of life, but find the courage to face them head on. There’s a beauty in that. A gore covered horrific beauty, but beauty nonetheless. So, adios, El Jefe. We’ll pour out a Shemp’s Beer in your memory.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018): Of Course You Realize This Means War

The narrative around the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends to focus on risk. When this experiment started a decade ago with the first Iron Man, Marvel Entertainment Group Inc put out a pretty costly loan in pursuit of creative control over a cohesive vision for a franchise. This obviously paid off as recent history – and cinematic present – has shown off. Of course, plenty have taken similar risks. Taking that plunge isn’t the hard part. See Universal’s hysterically misguided flop attempt at a large universe known as Dark Universe” for an idea of how such a risk can fail. The key ingredient missing there that’s present in the MCU is a clear trust in the material and the creatives. MCU guru and producer Kevin Feige knows that the key to the consistency of this universe is mainly kept alive is finding the right chef for the recipe on file.  Sure, he may have had a few bumps along the way. A forgettable Incredible Hulk film there. An Edgar Wright leaving a production there. After all, gotta break some eggs to make an omelet, right? Well, if Avengers Infinity War proves anything, it’s that such an omelet can be stuffed with more eggs, bacon, peppers, cheese, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ham, chicken, parsley, potatoes and whatever the hell else than most audiences can handle.

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Seriously, Avengers Infinity War has a pretty stacked cast of superheroes. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Star Lord (Chris Pratt) just to name a few. And that’s not even counting all the supporting characters and surprise guests who show up from prior films. All of those talented faces vying for the spotlight in this two hour and forty minute package seems daunting. Of course, directors Anthony and Joe Russo would arguably be the most equipped to do so given their superb work at juggling so many characters for Captain America: Civil War as well as their history with ensemble TV like Arrested Development and Community.

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To their credit, the character interaction is what really shines in Avengers Infinity War, mainly in scenes between people who have never met before like Black Panther and Captain America or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy. The banter back and forth between most of them gives us the type of comedy and pathos that’s made these movies connect so well with audiences. I say most because certain pairings definitely did seem to expose some familiarity in terms of certain characters. Namely, Tony Stark and Doctor Strange, which was an inherent problem with the latter’s original movie that becomes strikingly obvious here. Their egotistical charisma just feels like a rather boring game of tennis. Perfect in terms of timing, but lacking much of any individuality. Still, Cumberbatch and the rest of the individuals portraying these characters are incredibly committed to their parts. Even if Benedict’s American accent still leave a lot to be desired.

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The actors who have appeared in more movies clearly show how well they’ve embodied the characters and have grown since their original appearances. Avengers Infinity War feels less like a sequel and more like a season finale as it gives crescendings to firmly established characters. Chris Evans’ Captain America gives off so much war torn regret that’s made him a believably embittered version of the bright eyed kid from Brooklyn we first saw in Captain America The First Avenger. Mark Ruffalo’s slipping of control over his Hulk form shows the degradation of power yet change of motivation for his version of the character since The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. culminates the most impressive arc of the MCU as Tony Stark tries to settle himself to his more conventional desires yet can’t help but be a hero when Earth truly needs him. Still, there isn’t a huge amount of progression for any of them here, mainly because we have sort of hit a plato point for them. Which isn’t terrible, but it also isn’t that impressive. This is mostly a showcase for how the actors and previous films have progressed these characters rather than progressing them. Some even repeat their threads from previous films, particularly Star Lord with his emotional stuntedness that seemed to be retreading what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 already seemed to make him grow out of.

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This isn’t to shut out some of the other heroes who have only popped up a few times prior to Avengers Infinity War. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) gears up for his first official Avengers mission with the type of gumption and heart that makes him a fantastic Spider-Man. T’Challa cements his status as King of Wakanda with a generosity of spirit and command that’s shown his rise to power. Still, there’s a clear amount of people who sort of seem lost in the shuffle with little to do that isn’t plot threads. Vision and Scarlet Witch even manage to give their love story started in Civil War genuine weight. Some of the secondary Guardians characters like Drax (Dave Bautista) or Mantis (Pom Klementieff) very much fall into this category as they bumble along with the crowd to either hold someone down or freeze people in time. Same for someone like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as mere muscle for Cap’s crew or Wong (Benedict Wong) who ultimately is just assistant Doctor Strange. Obviously for them to get real spotlight character development is a tough task to fit in, but it’s less so for someone like Strange himself who is mostly there to carry the burden of one of the Infinity stones from Thanos and snark in the same way Stark essentially does.

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Speak of those Stones, the true highlight of Avengers Infinity War is someone who has been in multiple Marvel films but never really gotten much of a chance to do anything; Thanos (Josh Brolin). Since the character’s initial appearance in the post credit scene of the first Avengers, the big purple dude has been the main source of building dread for the MCU. A menace that hides in the shadows for mysterious reasons that weren’t really explored. He’d just pop up to introduce some angst for characters here or put on his big old glove there. For someone like myself who wasn’t a huge comics person, it seemed like Thanos would be some sort of letdown, especially with how many times MCU villains have fallen flat on their faces in comparison to the heroes. Yet, Thanos proves to be an exception that’s worthy of previous great villains like Loki or Killmonger who stood out as the better elements of some of their entries. Thanos’ central motivation is one that makes you understand his position. Not sympathize, but grasp why is doing such a thing. He’s out to kill so many beings, but in the pursuit of saving others. What we consider cruel he considers humane. It’s a form of population control that could be manically evil in the wrong hands, but instead comes off as the type of horrific behavior that could only come from someone who has developed a thought process that makes sense from their experience, no matter how awful it honestly is to contemplate.

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It helps that his adopted Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a crucial part of this contemplation for Thanos, as her resentment of him not only feeds into her own arcs from the two Guardians films but also gives Thanos a realization about the one thing that kept his evil in balance. A person he could love and hold amongst the chaos he was creating who grew to loathe him. Gamora’s loathing of him translates to her own doubts and worries that make her both a very strong warrior and a closed off individual who doesn’t play nice with many others. This ripples onto people like Star Lord or Nebula (Karen Gillan) in ways that support story points, but I wish carried over into developing those characters further. Still, Gamora’s growth here feeds into the larger arc of her character, which is more than any of the other characters from Guardians here who mostly spew jokes. Funny jokes, but without the pathos that Guardians writer/director James Gunn consistently strewn through the humor.

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Of course, Avengers Infinity War is still very much an action sci-fi adventure so the spectacle is all over the place. It’s clear that every cent of the budget is on the screen as the action here shows off some impressive scope and tight editing. Admittedly, there are definite points where the budget slightly strains to show off all the characters with a sense of consistency. The CG does slightly wain at awkward moments. The big climactic set pieces occasionally show the limits of compositing real faces onto CG worlds. Money can only go so far when rendering is as complex as this surely was. Yet, it still allows for weird things like Peter Dinklage appearing as  giant being out of an 80s fantasy film where the compositing and force perspective is more charming than obvious. The all CG  characters are far more consistent than expected, as Thanos or his minions blend pretty well in most environments and alongside living counterparts. Especially during the action sequences that are kinetic yet edited well enough to get a sense of where everything is. Of course, some of these all CG characters are various copies of the same creature design that attack our heroes en masse, which can get repetitive in ways that remind one of the lesser Chatri fight scenes from the first Avengers.

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Now, this all leads into some of the large problem with Avengers Infinity War. One that may just expose how much of a comic book person I really am. Or rather how much I’m not one. See, even with all the ambition that goes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All the hours we’ve spent seeing these people fight and win… the consequences haven’t been felt. On a smaller more human level, sure. Civil War opened the door for how the interpersonal character stakes could really be shaken quite aggressively between the Avengers as individuals. Yet, when it comes to really feeling the weight of the battles that happen, there never seemed to be much permanence in major characters being affected. The lack sticking to deaths has always been a factor, what with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) resurrecting himself multiple times in previous Thor films or Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) being alive midway through Captain America The Winter Soldier. It’s a trope known as Disney Death, which is pretty appropriate given the parent company for these Marvel films. Thor even jokes about this at one point during the course of Avengers Infinity War.

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Now, Avengers Infinity War tries very hard to avert this. Without spoiling things, this entry does everything it can to convince you these stakes are permanent and will totally carry over to great ramifications with the universe. And… I want to believe it. I really want to believe that some of these big heart string pulls will mean something because these characters have go through some seriously traumatizing events here that’s pretty hard to deal with and that the actors wonderfully show off the heft of. If many of these moments stick, it would challenge the MCU audience way that would change the dynamic of the entire MCU for the better. As much as I enjoy these characters, I want to see some of them bite it. Not because they deserve it or it’s a move that always works, but when executed right it allows a fan to remember and grieve for with complex emotions. Something a long lasting franchise rarely can achieve. But… I just don’t trust this universe to stick to many of them. The MCU has yet to prove themselves as willing to step over such a line unless it’s with a character who matters little or is clearly designed to die from the start. One moment in particular involving both Iron Man and Doctor Strange during is really where that realization took hold. And even more than any outside announcement of upcoming Marvel films, a decision like that shows a true lack of commitment to keeping all bets off and always keeping a back door open that could undo a lot of the gravity of lasting stakes, which is something comic book fanatic friends of mine have told me they’re used to. Characters who die often come back to fight in their tights again. It’s accepted as common fact for the serialized comic fan.

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However, while I do understand that is common in the original source medium, moves like this can only be done so often in cinematic form before one loses faith in the stakes of two beings fighting each other. Before it becomes clear what the outcome is doesn’t matter as long as the fight looks cool. And if the fight is dazzling that’s nice. I enjoy seeing Black Widow and Okoye (Danai Gurira) kicking random alien drone ass as much as the next person. But knowing there’s not even the slimest chance of real danger at this point just makes things feel sort of robotic. It worked for the first Avengers because the experience of seeing these people was novel and more important than grounded stakes. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula is something we’re all aware of. Avengers Infinity War wants to have its cake and eat it too with those recurring tropes and sometimes it succeeds. Other times it kind of shows that – while superhero fatigue may be a bit far fetched – Cinematic Universe fatigue may be brewing. Of course, Avengers Infinity War is really the first part of a two part film. The as-of-yet untitled sequel will close these threads and likely put Avengers Infinity War in its ultimate light, which could go either way. It’ll likely still remain a consistently fun piece of spectacle, but it may or may not keep its attempted high mark of being a risky gravity by that point. And the ending here honestly makes me more excited for a smaller scale Marvel film like Captain Marvel more than the big crossover event. Only time will tell.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Infinity Stones On A Gauntlet

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Men On the Moon: Milos Forman and His Transgressive Talent Trilogy

Earlier this month, the world lost Czech director Miloš Forman. Forman was one of many voices who came up during Hollywood’s New Age, when many artists were given free artistic reign to do whatever they wanted. This was a spirit that Forman obviously shared and brought to life in many of his art. After several films in the Czech Republic, Forman’s breakout mainstream hit American film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest treated this as a central motivation for Jack Nicholson’s character to plead insanity and get thrown in the mental institution in the first place. Hair‘s wild untamed structure is all about trying to keep such a free spirit alive in a vacuum before the Vietnam War sets to ruin it. However, neither of those films are ones that will be discussed here.

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The focus for this writing will be on the three films Forman directed that serve as portraits of artists who acted as transgressive people in their time; 1984’s Amadeus, 1996’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt and 1999’s Man on the Moon. Each could technically be called “biopics” of sorts that cover their respective artists with a fair amount of embellishment. And some would argue the validity of someone like Larry Flynt being called an artist of any kind. In the same way that Salieri could constantly argue that Mozart was a talentless claude. Or that Andy Kaufman’s form of comedy was a merely the early Ur text for online trolling with no merit to it. That question in of itself is woven into each of these films as people dismiss the actions of these wild brazen artists as merely trying to rock the boat for the mere idea of it rather than having any purpose. Admittedly, sometimes these people did shake the status quo for the hell of it. But there was always an effect that made each of them one of a kind subjects worthy of artistic reconfiguration in the hands of someone like Forman.

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There’s plenty of doubt in Amadeus, The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon about the line between prowess and arrogance. Whether these men who chose to set the status quo ablaze were madcap geniuses or crazy men that happened to have a bit of talent. Each one has a provocative knowledge of perspective and how this affects the views of these transgressive folks in the public eye. Even then, the public eye is skewed by rumor and hearsay in a fashion that mirrors the biopic’s inherent reimagining of historical events. Milos Forman’s true interests were never really in getting exact details right as much as the overall spirit of his subjects from a distant outlook through a narrative that cherry picked facts. So what if Salieri was a respected composer in his time? The point of an Amadeus is that Mozart is the composer whose work lasted centuries in the eyes of culture and that seems to more be the view of F. Murray Abraham’s character rather than the actual thoughts of the composer in historical record.

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The aspect of perspective is what makes each of these films distinctive from each other. Amadeus is quite clearly from the view of a contemporary who shows contempt throue his lense. The People Vs Larry Flynt comes from more of a third person narrative that details most of Flynt’s life from his initial upbringing to fighting against Jerry Falwell. Arguably, Man on the Moon does something similar to this, but the very odd opening moments present very clearly that this is all coming from the same POV that Kaufman would want, which is to say one that takes the traditional biopic structure and mixes in sweet sincerity with bizarre left turns. All three have very diverging takes on the concept of detailing a person’s life, which help emphasize the transgressive nature of their subjects. Amadeus shows the titular composer coming in and turning composition into popular conscious over merely commissions for royalty. The People Vs Larry Flynt gives the Hustler story of smut a down-to-earth bluntness vs the snootier expectations of Playboy and holier-than-thou attitudes of the moral right in power during the 1970s and 1980s. Man on the Moon deconstructs the rigid nature of comedy merely because the subjects found it funnier and more stimulating than the status quo. Each took their canvas and threw paint on to see what colors stuck. And that kaleidoscope of color is a gorgeous thing to see in narrative form.

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Amadeus is the most critically lauded of these three. Perhaps because it’s the most operatic, in a fitting fashion given the subject. Amadeus is a historical epic with massive grandeur and scale. We get a sense of the decadence and unbridaled excess of this world that Mozart revels in and Salieri shys away from in pursuit of being pure. The disgust Salieri has is in the idea that such a decadent animal like Mozart could continue to be as brilliant at writing music as he is. He can’t accept the mere idea that Mozart is a prodigy and has to think it’s God mocking him specifically rather than any kind of true talent or skill. This sets up the recurring seed of doubt about those who are the transgressors while also displaying an arrogance they can’t even fathom throughout all three films. That there’s no way they can have some kind of individual talent, but instead a cruel joke that those who questions such artists can’t contemplate exists. It’s a credit to Tom Hulce’s boyishly charming performance that imbues Mozart with the type of spirit that challenges F. Murray Abraham’s more bitter and contemplative Salieri who is always looking for an out he can never really find. Mozart is just that immensely talented, though he also isn’t just treated as a wholly perfect character. He has lustful feelings for women who aren’t his betrothed and issues with not living up to his father’s expectations, both of which mirror the other two films’ protagonists.

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The People Vs Larry Flynt is the most traditionally structured of this trilogy and the most often forgotten.. It’s has all the hallmarks of Oscar bait and suffers the most from trying to cram in as many moments from the titular person’s life as possible. Yet, the real surprise of The People Vs Larry Flynt is that it shows off the most intriguing transformation of its subject. Both Amadeus and Man on the Moon have progression for their subjects, but Woody Harrelson’s turn from snide smut peddler to born again Christian to embittered cynical victim to free speech crusader is transfixing to watch. Harrelson gives off so much in body language, even when the story requires such physical acting to be limited. Larry Flynt at his most defeated state has a tragic truth to it. His loss of motor function is honestly secondary compared to his loss of will to even bother trying to get up in the morning, which is mirrored in a beautifully tragic way by Courtney Love as Flynt’s wife Althea. With this and Man on the Moon, Forman managed to get genuinely powerful performances from Love that she never really has gotten close to in her acting attempts since or prior. Edward Norton as the on again/off again lawyer to Flynt also deserves so much credit. 1996 was a breakout year for Norton and his straight man back and forth with Harrelson displays genuine growth for both.

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Man on the Moon has the most interesting perspective on the artist, in as much as Miloš Forman truly dealt with an artist with an eccentric personality that ruffled many feathers… who was played by an artist with an eccentric personality that ruffled many feathers on set, including Milos himself. The recently released Netflix documentary Jim and Andy revealed that Jim Carrey was so sucked into playing the role of Andy Kaufman that he believed Kaufman himself took over his body and embodied him during production. Reactions vary from Kaufman’s family having catharsis over feeling Andy is truly in front of them when visiting Carrey to Jerry Lawler insisting that Carrey’s meaner antics toward him especially felt out of character for Andy’s real life relationship with him. Even without this perspective, there’s a constant reality warping nature to Man on the Moon that makes Kaufman an impish Puck-like fairy creature and a bastion for sincerity. Despite following a very traditional biopic structure, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script (who also wrote Larry Flynt) constantly twists the audience’s perception of reality right from the start. Both had a similar approach with their Tim Burton collaboration Ed Wood, about one of the more critically reviled filmmakers who ever lived. Sometimes the break in perspective reality is subtle like simply showing Jerry Lawler is actually in on the joke. Other times it’s overt, like seeing Kaufman’s creation Tony Clifton on stage with Kaufman himself. The central celebration of blurring the reality of Kaufman’s humor vs societal norms makes him a key example of a true transgressive talent, in the same way Mozart and Larry Flynt were.

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Despite how clearly opposing these three figures can be, Milos Forman clearly had a fascination with all three as outsiders. Given Forman himself became an American citizen in 1977, it shows a particular interest in the American Dream aspects of Kaufman and Flynt. Two outsiders who came up from little with injunity and a crazed vision. This doesn’t count out the story of Mozart of course, who shows off a wild rebellious spirit of his own that still makes him so popular. From his other films, Forman has an appreciation for the bizarre underdog. The type of person who others find confusing and off the beat and path are people Forman considers underrated heroes. The ones who surprise you the most in times where they are most needed to subvert normality. It’s this type of celebration of weirdos in history that has clearly influenced some of the more interesting true story based films in recent memory. Films like American SplendorI Tonya and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind owe much to Forman’s talent for embracing the weird and strange with equal parts distance and personal perspective that made his curious little unofficial trilogy some of the more unique examples within the genre. Especially one that can quite often grow stale like the biographical drama. It’s important to celebrate those that turn such drivel on their head. Even when it’s too late for them to directly hear it… in The Great Beyond.