Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Small Screen: Planet Earth II Review

I'm not a religious man and no church service can make me believe with any level of certainty that a God does in fact exist, but a series like Planet Earth II makes me wonder and want to believe there is something behind the scenes that crafted the incredible beauty our world has to offer.

A sequel to the series Planet Earth released in 2006, Planet Earth II utilizes 4K cameras to take us to some of the most remote places in the world and capture nature like never seen before, and it's truly a remarkable thing to behold. The 6 main episodes are titled for what each installment covers, "Islands", "Mountains", "Jungles", "Deserts", "Grasslands" and most interestingly "Cities" with a focus on how animals are living in a world that is being taken over by man and the structures we occupy. There is also a seventh episode titled "A World of Wonder" which showcases how the series was made, and the all too real danger this filmmakers and crew members put themselves in is unnerving and completely awe inspiring.

With our world changing seemingly every single day, and mostly for the worse rather than the better, it's fascinating to get an update a decade later after the first series to highlight the wonders of nature and how things might have adapted as a shifting climate continues to be a terrifying concern. Not everything is so serious with Planet Earth II though, although trust me, be warned that there are some really sad and hard to swallow moments as the series doesn't turn a blind eye to the hard truths that go along with the cruelty of nature (the most devastating moments arrive in the final "Cities" episode, especially a sequence demonstrating the damaging effects the bright lights of our world are having on a specific species). There are plenty of adorable moments and laughs to be had, with narrator Sir David Attenborough bringing an essential balance of lightness, darkness and comedic playfulness to the various moments they capture throughout.

Planet Earth II is the best show of 2017 thus far, an incredible non-fiction event that absolutely has to be seen, although if I can make a suggestion to those that didn't catch it on television but do want to watch it, perhaps wait for it to be streaming on a service like Netflix because of their abilities to properly stream native 4K, if you have a 4K television of course. Because my cable provider isn't able to broadcast at that level, I fully plan on watching this show all over again on there when the time arrives and explore the world all over again the way it is truly meant to be seen.

Series Grade: A

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

A word that will be used a lot to describe the new, live-action retelling of the 1991 Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast is "unnecessary". It's the most commonly tossed around word when one is judging a remake of any kind, specifically when the original film is so acclaimed and cherished, and while I can't disagree in the sense that of course the film doesn't need to be made, my general opinion on the matter is, why not? I know, I know, less retreads, more original ideas. Celebrate bold and daring cinema rather than business as usual projects that are made with the goal of printing money. Here's the thing though, remakes and sequels are going to happen. They are a part of the cinematic landscape whether you like it or not, and while the concept of don't pay for a ticket and then studios will learn their lesson is accurate, in the words of Terence Mann from Field of Dreams, "People will come.". 

I walked into a nearly sold out IMAX screening of the new Beauty and the Beast, people crammed into the seats like sardines excited to experience a story they love told in a new way. The box office numbers this weekend will be astronomical because people want the familiar along with the new, they want the nostalgia pouring out of the words they know with a dash of original content to mix things up a bit. They want characters that they have loved since their childhood played by Hermione Granger and the dashing actor from Downton Abbey (although for me it's Legion and The Guest that make Dan Stevens a familiar face).

When I say they, that includes me. Sure, I want more original cinema. I want more innovative storytelling and unique concepts and bold, memorable work. I also love the animated Beauty and the Beast and am more than willing to pay for a ticket to see if the magic translates to a live-action canvas, and while perhaps it has a bit of a pacing issue with some new content included that extends the length beyond the brisk, tight 80 minutes of the original, overall the good news is it does translate. The new Beauty and the Beast is a winner.

The single most important aspect to get it right was casting, specifically Belle because without the right beauty, no one would care about a beast. Emma Watson is perfect in the role with a look that glows and the essential touch to both charm and inspire empathy for Belle and her plight. To put it simply, if Watson was in the frame, that scene was better for it, and while it may prove hard to look away from her at times it's also mandatory in order to fully appreciate the artistry that went into the various elaborate set pieces and costumes, the way the castle is so perfectly lit to make one room inviting and the next ominous and unwelcoming. I previously mentioned Dan Stevens and he proved to be a good choice to play The Beast, while throughout a vast majority of the film you wouldn't know who was playing the role nor may you care to find out. Stevens' face was digitally imposed onto the Beast with motion capture technology so he is always playing the character, but what he is tasked with here doesn't inspire a level of praise that someone like Andy Serkis gets and deserves for his work in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, although honestly it's not fair to hold anyone to those lofty heights and expect similar results. For what Stevens was asked to do here, he did it well.

As for side characters, Luke Evans embodies everything that is needed out of a live-action Gaston, the good looks along with the smug arrogance that makes him so unlikable. Nevermind the absolutely absurd controversy surrounding the film and Josh Gad's take on LeFou, with a blink and you will miss it "gay moment" that honestly is so tame and run of the mill it actually makes me cringe a bit that this film was being praised in the other direction for having taking such a progressive stance by introducing an openly gay character because now having seen it, can we really call him openly gay? I expected a far more inclusive and heartwarming statement about love and equality, but I digress. I won't judge the film because of hype but rather what the film itself actually achieved, but I figured it was worth mentioning. The only actual issue with Gad's LeFou is that not every joke lands, especially early on in the film during his follow Gaston around and idolize him portion, but as the story unfolds his material feels less forced. Kevin Kline is solid as Belle's father Maurice, and Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Stanley Tucci and Audra McDonald all do great vocal work as the various household items in the castle that are brought to life because of the curse.

Perhaps it doesn't run as smoothly as the 1991 animated feature and of course since the material has already been done, this retelling was never going to feel as fresh as that once did, but it was easy for me to get lost in the songs I know and love, the intricate detail that went into crafting the village and the castle, the precise choreography that made big musical numbers feel joyous and effortless and the performances by a gifted ensemble, lead by a beauty that was born to play Belle.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Logan Review

"So, this is what it feels like."

For years now I have heard the calls from many for an R-rated superhero film, and I will be honest, I was pessimistic. Not opposed to it but also not calling for it myself. My concerns stemmed from the idea that once the green light for such a project was given, the content that would ultimately earn that rating would feel forced, plugged in for the sake of shock value and grabbing headlines rather than flowing naturally with a great story. While I very much enjoyed Deadpool for what it is and am not afraid to admit laughing quite a bit while watching it, that film did step in the trap I feared a bit, with a screenplay that is steeped in dick jokes yet conventional in its origin story foundation, willing to step over the line to make the audience blush but unwilling to have the balls to put care in the right places in order to make a good film great.

For all of you who were calling for the R-rated superhero film, congratulations. Logan is the blueprint of exactly what you were hoping for and exactly what I doubted could happen, a story not bogged down by an overwhelming desire to prove just how R-rated it is but rather one that feels totally natural using the freedom it was given. That's the word that kept coming to mind as I watched the film last night: freedom. Director James Mangold litters his film with brutal violence and plenty of foul language but it all feels right in this painfully honest, desolate vision of an aging mutant long since past his prime, hiding in the shadows under an alias trying to make an honest living just to be able to afford the life he envisions for his remaining years.

Without question Hugh Jackman does his best work of the entire franchise here and it can be hard watching a hero fall apart before our eyes, but it's a beautiful thing when the actor brings so much passion to the role. His chemistry with Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Charles Xavier is top notch, sharing plenty of frustrating, pain and love on screen that makes their briefly used ruse in the film in which they pretend to be father and son feel so real. The breakthrough aspect of Logan though is the introduction of young Dafne Keen as Laura, a young mutant whom shares the same abilities as Logan, being pursued by a group of men who clearly have ugly motives behind their desperation to put the girl back into captivity. The trio effectively form a family during the film and their bond blossoms despite limited dialogue thanks to performances and a screenplay that understands that the most important thing about this story isn't visual effects or constant battle sequences but rather a shared humanity between people who feel isolated and alienated because of who they are. Some of the quieter moments of Logan proved to be my favorite scenes.

My only real issue with the film is a somewhat lackluster villain, and by that I don't mean the entire group, what they did or their motivations going forward because all of that worked and made total sense, but rather the leader of the group specifically, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant). Starting with the only scene that made me cringe, taking place when Logan is watching footage taken in secret and Dr. Rice is heard literally instructing people to remember that mutants are not people, they are things, which for such a well written film felt so forced and unnecessary. It's quite evident and easy to understand that what we are seeing is evil and wrong, so having it spelled out with poor dialogue was basically on the same level as just flashing THIS IS A BAD GUY across the screen over his image. Even beyond that, I just felt this character was very underwritten and nothing more than a cliche, which stood out during a film that was anything but.

As this is the last time we will see Jackman portray this character on screen, it's hard to believe looking back that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men film when we were introduced to his take on Wolverine, and now it is difficult to imagine anyone else stepping into those shoes for future projects. What a fitting way for his run to end here, a punch to the gut and certainly not a colorful blast of fun some are looking for when taking their seats for a superhero movie, but the tonal balance achieved in Logan is remarkable and creates a beautiful, heartfelt and devastating story that finds a certain grace and delicateness despite the stellar action sequences that produce piles of bodies that met their demise in rather graphic ways. Throughout the film I found myself laughing, caring, and nearly crying but it never feels jarring, nothing beyond a little quibble here or there feels out of place.

Logan is a dark, hard hitting comic book film that explores the human condition and the universal desire to find ones "Eden", whether it be to reunite with people whom you can share yourself with or to disappear on a boat away from shore in search of a personal peace. It's haunting and powerful stuff and might just be the best X-Men film of any kind to date.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Small Screen: Taboo Episode 8

The good news is, the first season finale of Taboo was the best episode of the show thus far. The bad news is even with that being said, it wasn't without its flaws, but it was a mostly riveting, beautifully shot and exciting final chapter to a mixed bag of a season overall.

It was a pretty safe bet that the Taboo crew, starting with creators Steven Knight, Chips Hardy and Tom Hardy (whom also stars) on down, would close out this eight episode run with some explosive stuff considering all the time and effort it took to build up these characters, their relationships and the feuds that would inevitably turn deadly. I just wish I didn't feel the time and effort getting there as much as I did throughout the first seven weeks. Perhaps had these eight episodes been six instead, with some trimming done to a bit of the storytelling fat that completely failed to engage me, I would be far more positive about the series as a whole, but that being said I know a lot of people loved Taboo from start to finish, so perhaps it's just me.

This show has always been bleak, which is actually just fine by me although at times it played a little too one note which created the notion that getting through a particular episode felt like a bit of a slog (looking all the way back at you, second episode). I loved every inch of the cold, joyless aesthetic and when you get to know these characters, it only makes sense that this would be the world they would occupy. The finale utilizes the best traits of this show, from the photography to the production design to the solid performances and tosses in some brutal, bloody war that piles up the bodies by the time it ends.

When I started watching Taboo I was under the impression that it was only eight episodes total, a limited series never destined to continue on beyond that, but now that I have seen the finale and the way it concludes I feel pretty confident that we will see more of James Delaney in the future. While I didn't always love what I was seeing during this season, at least it ended on a high note.

Episode Grade: B+

Season Grade: B-

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 Review

I love the way the two John Wick films feel like they belong in the fantasy genre despite featuring real locations filled with real people including a protagonist dealing with real, powerful grief. When one hears the word fantasy they are immediately prone to think of wizards or hobbits or fictional galaxies far, far away, but for me it works for anything that feels removed from reality and the rules John and those around him play by are not soaked in realism, nor should they be. A ballet of bullets blasting through the air, violence almost feels beautiful and poetic during the immensely well choreographed sequences in both John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2, and like most action films the concern for innocent bystanders is removed from the equation but with these films it's like it was never even a consideration to be factored in in the first place. Whether John moves through a crowd of people dancing or engages in a deadly fight while on a train, those that look on feel like spectators in the same way we in the audience are because the only people in danger are those that stand in his way, and police intervention is never truly taken into account as a possibility. Even when law enforcement does arrive, it is through vague inference and minimal dialogue that we gather that an understanding exists that they know exactly what John is doing and they have no intentions of trying to stop it.

Currency exchanged throughout the film doesn't appear as stacks of dollar bills but rather a single gold coin and it is understood by these characters that whatever the value is, it is sufficient to pay for his attire or supplies or perhaps vital information needed to find his target. This entire underworld of crime bosses and assassins run through the Continental Hotel which itself has its own rules, one very specific and notable one that prohibits bloodshed on the property regardless of what grudges are held or what unfulfilled missions are ongoing involving those whom are staying in it at the same time. This concept reminded me of growing up playing role playing video games like the Final Fantasy franchise in which no matter what creatures or villains were out there trying to get you, a step inside a peaceful town served the purpose as a sanctuary, the guarantee of a nights rest and the opportunity to acquire what is needed for the journey ahead.

When a contract goes out for a new target, the call runs through an old fashioned switchboard and seemingly every person in every frame gets notified on their cell phone, which of course seems silly unless you approach John Wick as fantasy. These sequences were reminiscent of Walter Hill's cult classic The Warriors in that a heavily populated New York City is seemingly owned by the rival gangs and little else, as John isn't being stalked by merely a single face in an enormous crowd but rather the crowd itself, a world where assassins are around every corner and he must kill every single one of them with intentions of collecting the bounty. The irony of these films is that the most mocked aspect of their premise is that John started his quest for vengeance after the death of his dog, yet for me this concept is the most grounded and realistic thing about these pictures, and I love the way they represented the depth of John's pain in John Wick: Chapter 2 by introducing a new companion but one he refuses to name, perhaps a method to avoid the level of attachment that ends in heartbreak.

Directed by Chad Stahelski whom has an incredible eye for filming brilliant action sequences against vibrant backdrops, with familiar faces returning for round two while also bringing in new characters like villain Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) and assassins hunting John down named Ares (Ruby Rose) and Cassian (Common), if you loved the first John Wick film you will not be disappointed returning to this world. Endlessly entertaining and deliciously violent with the certainty of a third (and hopefully final) film on the way, the second piece of the John Wick trilogy takes the stylized brutality of the first picture and utilizes an expanded budget to upgrade the scale and scope of the experience and it delivers.