Of Hippos and Meerkats: Neill Blomkamp’s ELYSIUM

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Let’s face it: Neill Blomkamp is a man of great expectations. The young filmmaker was plucked out of obscurity by Peter Jackson in the wake of several impressive commercials and short films, and ever since then, he’s been on the radar of seemingly every big-budget, genre franchise in Hollywood. After his attempt at a live-action HALO feature fell through (in spite of Jackson’s collaborative efforts), he went on to direct the celebrated DISTRICT 9, a movie which landed him Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations at the Academy Awards. He has since gone on to turn down offers to helm the latest instalments of both the STAR TREK and STAR WARS universes. Not too shabby for a kid from Johannesburg.

So, when it became clear that Blomkamp was far more interested in telling his own stories than in playing in somebody else’s sandbox, expectations mounted again. Here was another fresh face for the genre community, one determined to tell original stories. It’s a sad fact that this has become a rare treat these days, but it’s the harsh truth of the current Hollywood climate: big-budget, genre pics don’t often get made anymore if they’re not based on existing properties.

Enter ELYSIUM, Blomkamp’s long-awaited, sophomore follow-up to DISTRICT 9. Less allegorical than the content would have you believe, ELYSIUM drops us into the year 2154, where Earth has become a diseased, polluted and wildly overpopulated wasteland. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to take a look at this desolated landscape and see a kernel of truth at its core – population trends for our planet have become increasingly prevalent in contemporary fiction (notably, not just in science-fiction), and we’re reaching a boiling-over point. What happens when we’ve used up all our resources on our own planet, and yet have done little in the way of extraterrestrial colonization?

The answer Blomkamp arrives at is a simple, elegant and perfectly logical one: our class divides would effectively segregate the population even further, necessitating an entirely new habitat for the upper-class – one which does not associate itself with the desolation it has the means to ignore. And so we present the Have-Nots, left alone on Earth to their poverty, famine and general slum-based existence, and the Haves, wallowing in idyllic splendour, up in the titular space station orbiting Earth. The wealthy seem to spend their time doing one of two things: dressing up in pretty clothes in order to entertain guests, or dressing up in skimpy clothes to catch a few poolside rays.

It’s not the most original premise, but it is one that is fundamentally sound and is a relative hotbed for social commentary – something which Blomkamp proved himself adept at with the Apartheid-laced segregation of his debut. It’s the kind of concept that would find itself fitting comfortably alongside latter-year versions of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS or even from the original run of STAR TREK.

Wisely, however, Blomkamp doesn’t seem overly concerned with banging the social reform drum too loudly. Sure, the film has its share of left-wing (maybe even socialist) interpretations, but they seem less an intended message than a natural product of the narrative. In a story with a class system divided so deliberately, having the lower-class rise up against their oppressors isn’t the equivalent of having a political agenda; it’s simply the only logical place the story can go, because history has proven to us time and time again that this is the only possible outcome of segregated classes. Blomkamp uses this premise as a jumping-off point to tell his story, but doesn’t linger too long on any one “message”. After all, our hero isn’t a revolutionary leader or a great resistance fighter – he’s just a selfish, troubled man who uses whichever side of the political landscape that will offer him the momentary advantage.

And that’s where ELYSIUM succeeds. It would have been much too easy for Blomkamp to set up Max (Matt Damon) as a political idealist. And if he had, then any and all criticisms about agendas might have been valid. But he doesn’t paint him as an idealist. He paints him as a normal, humble man; one who has felt and lost love and has made more than his fair share of mistakes in his past, but is ultimately a good person. He’s selfish, and he worries about his own needs, but he has a good heart, and he plays the cards he’s dealt. Max is not a hero. But he is our only protagonist, and a fairly realistic one at that. It’s not difficult to imagine that, given the circumstances under which he finds himself, we might also do the things which Max resorts to in order to just live his life – a life which is fundamentally unfair and troubled by injustices. His navigation of the political landscape is completely dependent on what he needs for himself and the people that he cares about, and nothing more. As those needs change and shift over the course of the film, his allegiances change and shift as well.

But truth be told, ELYSIUM’s major strengths do not lie in its story. Though it is perfectly functional, its characters arcs and motivations clear and distinct, it is not exactly the most compelling or unique narrative. It’s fairly easy to know where the story is going early on in the film. Luckily, that slight predictability is not enough to keep you from enjoying how the film unfolds, and that’s largely due to a few stellar factors that allow the film to retain its originality and creativity.

The first is Sharlto Copley. ELYSIUM’s cast is (mostly) made up of good performances which help ground the occasional silliness: Damon does a great job, William Fichtner (John Carlyle) is terrific (as always) but tragically underused and Wagner Moura (Spider) has a blast with his eccentric arms-dealer / political leader. The rest of the cast is fine – with the notable exception of Jodie Foster, whose performance is a unique and powerful misfire – but Copley comes out on top with his deliciously hammy Kruger character.

ELYSIUM has its share of over-the-top sensibilities, and Blomkamp knows it. When it comes to depicting the upper-class characters, the actors all share a very particular diction pattern – one which is nearly melodic in its overly-deliberateness. It’s almost as if Blomkamp ordered his upper-class-level actors to take the snottiest, most blatantly-defined diction and assume that would be how these rich folk of the 22nd century would speak. It works for some characters (like Fichtner, who manages to make it sound almost robotic, something which lends itself perfectly to his bureaucratic character), but not for others (like Foster, where it can at times be painful to watch). It’s an interesting choice, and it shows that Blomkamp is willing to let his actors have a little fun with their roles.

But nowhere is this more obvious than with Copley’s Kruger, the renegade operative living down on Earth. He’s absurd, he’s ridiculous, and he’s wonderfully entertaining to watch. It’s a pleasant surprise to see Copley – who played the clean-cut Wikus in DISTRICT 9 – let loose in a role like this, where rape, murder and a hilariously mysterious cloak I can only assume he found in a dumpster are all part of the job description. His delivery is perfectly absurd, and he seems to relish every word. And does a rogue sleeper agent who has been biologically enhanced with technology really need to carry a sword? Of course not, but it’s all part of the fun.

The second factor is Blomkamp’s impeccable – at times arresting – visual style. Though there are plenty of gorgeous images in this film, it’s the inventiveness of the imagery that really transcends. Several of the shots in the final action sequence are almost Edgar Wright or Zack Snyder-esque, with speed ramps and dolly shots blurring the line between reality and CGI. In another sequence, Blomkamp somehow manages to reproduce the snorri-cam shot from a distance as he follows Damon’s character into battle. Seeing a Blomkamp film means seeing things that you probably wouldn’t get in a normal blockbuster, and that will always be refreshing, no matter the film.

Lastly, there is the world-building. One of the most important weapons in any genre filmmaker’s arsenal is his or her ability to color each world they create with new and exciting ideas, creations and situations. Blomkamp is no different. His knack for imaginative ideas is on full display here; the film sometimes feels like it is absolutely bursting at the seams with imagination. Sure, the robotic police officers are not exactly breaking new ground, but the scene between Damon and his fast food restaurant mascot-inspired parole officer is priceless. From the vast amount of individually-unique weaponry (specifically the guns, which Blomkamp seems to have a real affinity for) to the various pieces of tech (like floating, holographic screens which appear out of thin air to update citizens with necessary information), Blomkamp and his team never spend too much time explaining or pointing out any of the world’s idiosyncrasies. And the mark of a fully-realized world is when there’s so many things to see, most of them need to be glanced over as givens, rather than objects of curiosity.

ELYSIUM is a quality entry in this year’s crop of blockbusters, and a welcome return by Neill Blomkamp. It may not reach the levels of DISTRICT 9 – which, admittedly, set an unrealistically high bar – but it’s a competently-made, original sci-fi film, and that’s definitely something to be encouraged by people who have grown weary of seeing more remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels and spin-offs than they could shake a stick at.

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

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Micro-Review: John Mitchell & Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK

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John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker’s THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK has been billed as (probably) the only alien / folk duo / science-fiction / action / romance / comedy movie ever made. It’s difficult to argue with that assessment, because it may be the most accurate description of the film you’re likely to find. After all, this is a movie where a duo of intergalactic space travelers come to Earth bent on its destruction, discover music and decide to spare the human race – all while developing a cult following as the bluegrass / folk duo, Future Folk.

If any (or all) of that sounds appealing to you, you’re certainly in for a treat. THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK is a silly, absurd film, but its idiosyncrasies work in its favor, creating a rare level of charm. From the delightfully catchy musical numbers – there are several – to the goofy-to-the-point-of-endearing sense of humor, it’s difficult to ever peg the film down into any one category. And at an extremely brisk 86 minutes, it never has a chance to wear out its welcome. Mitchell and Walker continuously evolve the story in new directions (and genres) over the course of the movie, and by the time we reach the finale, it never feels like it’s had a chance to repeat itself. 

It’s noteworthy that the filmmakers choose to fully stick to their guns when it comes to the premise’s absurdities. There’s a lot of camp value inherent to these kind of stories, and they never resist putting it all up there on the screen – from the set decoration to the costume design, this is an indie comedy for the DOCTOR WHO crowd. Similarly, it should be acknowledged that the film never takes the easy way out, especially given its classic “fish-out-of-water” set-up. It dabbles briefly in milking humor out of initial alien-human interactions, but it’s all in the service of character development, and it never allows itself to descend into cliché sight gags and scenarios.

The film is not perfect, however. Its narrative is unambitious, though pleasingly so, and some of the sequences have quite obviously been included in order to tick off another genre, rather than because they organically evolved out of the story. But these are small nitpicks in an otherwise delightful story, and the writer / directors earn such huge points for originality and creativity that its hard to focus in on any of them. Really, this is just a very sweet film about connecting with other people (even if those people are actually aliens), whether that connection be through music or love. And even in spite of its goofy tone, Mitchell and Walker manage to pull off a surprisingly poignant ending – one which feels fully earned and emotionally resonant.

This is one of those rare properties that is just dripping with possibility. Much like the similarly eccentric Flight of the Conchords, Future Folk have the potential to expand into all kinds of different areas. In addition to the film, there’s already an album of music available online, and – given the right level of exposure – I could see a whole cult-following springing up around them. And deservedly so.

Hondo!

7.5/10

d.a. garabedian

Respect the Chair: J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

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Review originally posted at Movie Knight, here.

Throughout J.J. Abrams’ latest foray into the world of science-fiction, a couple of phrases and ideas get repeated a noticeable number of times. Both of these remarks refer to the level of responsibility inherent to being the captain of a ship. They also happen to be at fundamental odds with our protagonist’s natural instincts.

Above all, respect the Captain’s Chair. But more importantly:

The choices you are making, if wrong, will get every single living person that you care about killed.

When we last left off with Abrams’ newly-rebooted take on the STAR TREK franchise, he had assembled himself a ragtag group of absurdly capable and entertaining explorers: Sulu (John Cho), the pilot and swashbuckler-extraordinaire, Chekov (Anton Yelchin), the accented navigator, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the talented linguist, Bones (Karl Urban), the nervous doctor, Spock (Zachary Quinto), the logical but emotionally crippled half-human and, last-but-not-least, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine), the overly-eager and arrogant captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

In a move born less out of reluctant necessity than seized through self-aggrandizing delusions of destiny, Kirk assembles his crew and saves the day, proving himself worthy all in one swift stroke. But a single victory does not make a man a leader, nor does a declaration of greatness necessarily make one great.

And so, Abrams has returned to the franchise he reinvigorated with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, a bigger, bolder and ballsier crash-course in blockbuster filmmaking.

Picking up around a year after the first film, Abrams (along with screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) immediately thrusts us back into the waiting arms of the newly formulated super-team, already mid-mission. But when things go increasingly awry, Kirk is forced to improvise, violating the Prime Directive in the process – a rule under which no civilized species can intrude on the development of a less civilized, alien one.

It’s not the first rule we’ve seen the over-zealous captain break – and it certainly won’t be the last – but it’s an important reminder of Kirk’s true nature: that he thinks of himself as outside of and above the rules. Even when acting selflessly, he still believes his natural instincts and moral obligations take precedence over his other responsibilities. It’s a trait which his mentor, Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), believes he needs to have rubbed out of him. His lack of humility is not just a danger to himself and to his crew; it’s a sign that Kirk has no respect for the demands and responsibilities of a position he has barely earned. He’s not ready.

It’s an interesting twist on the standard “you’ve earned your stripes, now prove you can handle them” storyline which so many action heroes are faced with in their sophomore efforts. Kirk doesn’t fail because he broke the rules and risked the lives of his crew – he fails because he broke the rules while trying to save them from a mess he put them in in the first place. His respect and love for his crew is readily apparent, but it always comes second to his own arrogant ambitions. This isn’t a film about learning to love your family. This is a film about learning to be worthy of your family – especially when you’re the one seated in the chair at the head of the table.

All of this discussion naturally brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous John Harrison. The less said about this character, the better, and I have no intention of spoiling him for you after all this time spent keeping him under wraps. He is, however, an infinitely more interesting character than Eric Bana’s Nero, and reflects the themes of the film well.

Harrison is one of those villains who mirror the hero in all of the right ways. He too is a captain, and he too would do anything for his family. His anti-authoritative (borderline terrorist-esque) tactics are aggressive and amoral, but his philosophies – and sometimes even his goals – line up pretty notably with Kirk’s. His plan seems to be fueled by passion rather than anything more insidious. He is a conflicted, relatable, ruthless monster, and his (reasonably) nuanced character makes him easy to root for and easy to misread – by both the audience and the other characters. The twisted and unexpected path down which his character travels is constantly surprising and a little bit incredible; if he wasn’t such an enigmatic force, it might seem contrived, but instead it feels honest and compelling.

And that may as well be true of the entire film, as it were. Lindelof, Kurtzman and Orci have cooked up a fairly detailed, politically-charged backdrop for INTO DARKNESS. That kind of storytelling requires a lot of turns and surprises, and some of it will certainly play better with some than for others. The final hour or so is a nonstop barrage of turns, reversals, shifted alliances, militaristic strategy and uncovered truths. It might seem easy to get lost in all of the shuffling around at breakneck speeds, but Abrams nails these plot developments like they’re going out of style.

Because what’s truly impressive about INTO DARKNESS (much like STAR TREK before it) is how unbelievably effortless the entire affair feels. It takes a rare sort of filmmaker to grind such a massive project down to something so polished, it literally shines (yes – there’s more lens flare to look forward to). There are cracks in the surface here which weren’t as readily apparent in the previous installment – wasn’t Kirk’s punishment in the opening of the film washed away a little too quickly? – but it’d take a heart of stone to let them diminish your enjoyment of the sheer wonder on display here.

But lest you believe that Abrams runs this franchise like nothing more than a well-oiled but soulless machine, you can rest assured that the same levels of heart and humor which were so prominent in the first film are on full display here. It’s as consistently funny throughout as the first film (maybe even more so), all while simultaneously embracing darker, edgier and more ambitious goals. The tone never needs to shift, as the film combines both the light and dark in perfect balance. This machine’s soul is fully intact.

And that’s great news, because the men who drew this blueprint are a marvel of the technological revolution. INTO DARKNESS is as tightly structured and as breathlessly paced as the first film in just about every way. As it moves from spectacular set-piece to spectacular set-piece, it’s hard not to be impressed by how the film never relents and yet also never becomes tiresome. It’s a true testament to everybody involved that this ship just keeps blasting through space without a single hiccup.

With that being said, the film is not perfect. Its first hour, exhilarating as it is, lacks the punch that the first film delivered so powerfully throughout.  In STAR TREK, you never felt as if you could see the machinery working behind the scenes; here, however, setup feels a bit like setup, rather than plot. It’s not a serious knock against the film, and it’s not dreadfully problematic, but it’s noteworthy. And after the jaw-dropping final act, the whole thing wraps up with a bit of a dull whimper after a bang: the ending is very abrupt, and could have probably used a little breathing room.

All those nitpicks aside, however, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is another home run for Abrams and his Bad Robot team. Giacchino’s score is wonderfully bombastic as always, though maybe not as unexpectedly great as the first film. The cast all do a terrific job, as well; the main characters are forced to dig a little deeper into their characters, especially towards the end of the film. And the special effects are, as always, top-notch.

Summer blockbusters which operate on this level are a rare treat. Hopefully, once Abrams is done making a little film called STAR WARS: EPISODE VII, he comes back and finishes this trilogy off right. The franchise deserves its latest captain back in the chair, where he belongs.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

You Know Who I Am: Shane Black’s IRON MAN 3

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“Who’s your favorite superhero?”

It’s a common question among both so-called geeks and their less diehard equivalents, and has never been asked more than in recent years, when the genre has finally successfully made its way into mainstream cinema. It’s not a particularly important inquiry, and it doesn’t really do much in the way of enlightening much about the chooser; “because he / she is cool” is the rationale you’re most likely going to be given if you press the question harder. Occasionally, however, there is one factor which tends to divide fans, and it has a lot to do with the most basic element of the genre: how much do we like a character’s superpowers or – as in this case – their lack of particularly fantastical abilities?

It’s one of those bizarrely divisive opinions, and one that it’s increasingly hard to get away from in a world where Batman and Iron Man are kings. These characters were not hit by waves of gamma radiation, or bit by radioactive spiders, or alien in origin. They are, in fact, quite human – completely fallible in all of the traditional senses, except for a few noteworthy skills which do not inherently differentiate them from any of their audience. Do we love Iron Man simply because he is a normal man (albeit one who was gifted with seemingly inexhaustible wealth and intellect)? Or do we find Bruce Wayne a less interesting hero because he is essentially buying his powers? This humanity may be appealing to those who prefer their drama with a little more nuance, but it may not always be particularly compelling to those who desire fantastic stories and escapism.

Of course, all of this has changed over the last ten years. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau took these fallible heroes and constructed legitimately compelling (and legitimately grounded) film worlds for them to exist in. Their status as “mere humans” was the fuel which has made them some of the most beloved comic book superheroes out there today. So, of course, it’s only natural that Tony Stark’s return to the big-screen would tackle this frailty head-on.

Directed by Shane Black (who reunites here with Robert Downey, Jr. from their KISS KISS BANG BANG days together), IRON MAN 3 is easily the most nuanced superhero film to have come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. It’s absolutely loaded with imagery and ideas about what kind of toll being a superhero would take on a completely ordinary man. This isn’t another story about the responsibility or isolation of heroism; it’s about the psychological cost. But more importantly, it’s about identity. Wisely, Black chooses to ignore the “hero as a symbol” metaphor – which was hammered into the ground by Nolan over the course of his Dark Knight Trilogy – and instead opts for something equally interesting but heretofore unexplored: the symbiotic relationship between the identities of the hero and their alter-ego.

Stark (who is once again played to delightful perfection by Downey, Jr.) spends most of the film struggling with his identity – both as Tony Stark and as Iron Man. In an opening flashback sequence, he traipses around a New Year’s Eve party with a name tag which reads “You Know Who I Am” – a phrase which is repeated several times by several characters throughout the film. It’s a declaration of self-confidence in one’s identity, and one which is stripped from Stark over the course of the film before being returned in the final frame. Black brings us back to this moment in 1999 for reasons outside of narrative function; he also uses it as a reminder to both remind us of how far Stark’s identity has shifted since we first met him as well as to show us a moment in time where his identity was wholly (and obnoxiously) secure.

This is where we pick back up with Stark in the present day, following the events of THE AVENGERS. And in a surprising turn, we find that his glorious triumph alongside his newfound, superhero brethren has not given his ego a stroking from which he might never recover. Rather, we find that Stark is a hopeless wreck: he’s suffering from insomnia, anxiety attacks and an intense vulnerability which has him trying desperately to fuse his own personal identity with the only one he feels can protect him – Iron Man. One of his very first scenes involves him injecting himself with nanotechnology, making him able to summon pieces of his suit just by willing it with his mind. This merging of tech and man is more than just a cool upgrade to his superpower arsenal – it’s a fusion of identities, a desperate attempt to leave behind the fragility of his own mortality and enhance it beyond its own capabilities. In a world where gods fall from the sky and scientists can transform into huge, green monsters, it’s easy to imagine somebody as narcissistic as Stark feeling both inferior and incredibly vulnerable – especially after his near-death experience at the climax of THE AVENGERS.

But Stark takes this process one step further. Soon, he’s developing tech which allows him to live inside of the Iron Man suit without ever leaving the safety of his lab. It’s a mildly agoraphobic tendency which is played for laughs, but reveals a troubling dependency on his superhero facade for protection. This is a man who is unable to reconcile the differences between himself and his alter-ego, an identity within which he is able to feel powerful, strong and fully capable. Outside of his suit, he finds himself growing weaker: upon experiencing his first anxiety attack, his instinct is to run right into the arms of his waiting suit, inside which he can be safe. And when he encounters a young boy named Harley, the kid doesn’t recognize Tony Stark – he only recognizes the suit. In a candid introduction, Harley and Stark talk about the disabled suit as if it were a third person in the room, calling it “he” and explaining its troubles. Stark is all but forgotten in this conversation – his own identity is second to the suit’s.

But the suit is more than just an alternate identity for Stark to adopt from time to time. In IRON MAN 3, the suit is a characterStark and the suit sit side-by-side on a couch, looking at one another. The suit comes to life and attacks Pepper as she tries to wake him from a nightmare, reacting to his subconscious defence mechanism. He hauls it behind himself across frigid tundras like penance for a sin when it malfunctions. It is a physical presence throughout the entire film: close-ups of the helmet’s face are numerous, and its interaction with various characters are some of the most important in the movie. In Stark’s both literal and figurative isolation, Pepper’s face falls not against that of her boyfriend’s, but against the empty helmet and face of his alter-ego. And when he finally comes to terms with the strength of his own identity at the climax of the film, the face on that helmet burns away, leaving a place for Stark’s own to fill it.

And there’s more, too: when Guy Pearce’s delightfully eccentric Aldrich Killian shows up at the beginning of the film to attempt to woo Pepper away from Stark, he shows her a virtual map of his own brain, which they step inside and explore. It’s played as a romantic moment, and it’s obvious that Pepper appreciates this chance to delve into the mind of a possible suitor – something which she can’t really do with Stark, especially given his current psychological state. This sharing of pieces of one’s self is a through-line of the story, as both men gradually give more and more of their own alternate identities to her.  Killian, who forces her involvement in the Extremis program which gives him superhuman abilities, treats her as a trophy – someone who he can force into the mould of his Extremis identity. Stark, on the other hand, gives away his own powerful identity to her in times of need: when their home is destroyed, he protects her using the suit, essentially giving her his body to keep her safe at the risk of his own well-being. Later, at the end of the film, Pepper seizes pieces of the suit herself in order to save him, affirming her choice to share in his alternate identity – something which Killian attempted to force on her.

It’s particularly noteworthy that Black makes the bold decision to focus most of the film on Tony Stark, rather than Iron Man. More than half of the film’s runtime keeps Stark outside of the suit, a move which requires him to get back in touch with the things that make him special when he’s not flying around in a hunk of metal. This, of course, brings us back to the argument at the beginning of the piece: is Tony Stark a hero without his gadgets, or did he simply buy his superpowers? It’s a question that’s as important to the audience as it is to the character, and Stark’s journey over the course of the film involves him learning to live without the safety net of the suit – and being a more impressive and effective hero because of it. His final decision to remove the reactor from his chest plate and finally eliminate the shrapnel in his body is less a refusal of one identity as it is the acceptance of another: we all know that Iron Man can be a hero, but it’s important that both we and the character also know that Tony Stark can be a hero, too.

What’s truly incredible about this film isn’t all of these delightfully nuanced convergences of fantastic, superhero semantics and grounded character development: it’s the fact that all of these things exist in a film which is downright hilarious and spectacularly entertaining. The action sequences here have been ramped up beyond anything we’ve seen in the MCU before (yes, even in THE AVENGERS), and there’s more laughs in the second hour of IRON MAN 3 than there was in the last two movies combined. In spite of how much time Downey, Jr. spends outside of the suit, Black still manages to pack in a ton of action – and make every single one of those sequences count.

The tone is pitch-perfect, and as hard as it it to believe, Black seems to understand this world even better than Favreau did. The depth of the script (which he co-wrote alongside Drew Pearce) is rivalled only by the remarkably shifting tone: at moments dark and introspective, the story is quick to take a huge left turn into the unexpected and the hilarious. Some of the plot developments are downright shocking for a major, summer blockbuster, and they’re an absolute credit to Black’s direction. He makes the franchise feel fresh and new again, and that should come as a sigh of relief to fans who have seen Iron Man four times in the past six years.

The performances are great, the action is compelling and the story is the best we’ve seen thus far in an MCU film.

Welcome to Phase Two.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

That Which We Are, We Are; One Equal Temper of Heroic Hearts: Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL

In the 50 years that the franchise has endured, there has never been a James Bond quite like Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character. It was apparent from the very beginning, even in the opening moments of the now-legendary modernization of the series, CASINO ROYALE: cold and brutal, sure, but surprisingly fallible and – at times – even vulnerable. And this vulnerability – something which, once upon a time, might have led to the demise of the character’s integrity – has instead reinvigorated the long-standing espionage franchise. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Sam Mendes’ proverbial hat-in-the-ring, SKYFALL.

SKYFALL is a black sheep of a Bond film – that much is clear. Though large portions of it subscribe to 007’s formula, another, equally large chunk veers violently away from it, leading the character down roads which he has heretofore never traveled. Sure, Craig’s time spent under the mantle has seen him dipping his toe into the realm of a deeper, more humanized and complex Bond in the past, but nothing quite like this. SKYFALL is something else entirely, and Mendes (along with joint writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan) ought to be commended for the risky leaps they take with the character in the final act. Suddenly, Bond is a subtextual, thematically rich character, and he’s all the better for it. In simpler terms, SKYFALL might just be the best James Bond film ever made.

It’s a bold statement, no doubt, though one that seems to have been repeated quite a bit in anticipation of the film’s North American release. And with 23 official installments in the franchise, it’s sort of a difficult claim to back up. Yet stacking up SKYFALL against some of most celebrated entries finds it surpassing many of them in meaningful and substantial ways; most notably, in Martin Campbell’s twin reboots, GOLDENEYE and Craig’s aforementioned inaugural effort, CASINO ROYALE.

GOLDENEYE, for one, holds a special place in the James Bond canon for reasons beyond that of nostalgia and successful reinvention: it’s also the first film in the franchise’s history to contextualize its story (and the character) in allegorically-rich ways. Centered entirely around the literal ghost of the Cold War coming back to haunt a contemporary (and, in many respects, outdated) secret serviceman, GOLDENEYE took the franchise out of the ’70s and into the present day – all while acknowledging just how difficult it is to recontextualize a figure that is, for all intents and purposes, stuck in the past. Likewise, CASINO ROYALE’s hyper-modern take on the character became an instant favorite for really delving into the psychology of 007 for the first time, making him a living, breathing person rather than the caricature he’d been reduced to on so many occasions.

And – without spending too much more time on the past – GOLDFINGER must, of course, be mentioned. Sean Connery’s third outing as the man with the license to kill is thought by many to be the pinnacle of the series – the moment when the James Bond formula achieved true perfection. That may certainly be so, but the truth is that SKYFALL fits into this same mold. It is the pinnacle of a reinvented version of the character; one who is objectively more complex and compelling than the initial interpretation. If GOLDFINGER represents the pinnacle of the Cold War-era hero, then SKYFALL undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of the fallible, modernized hero.

In spite of how much time has already been spent here discussing the merits of SKYFALL amongst the rest of the franchise, where the film truly succeeds is in just how impressive it is as a film outside of the series’ context. Frankly, SKYFALL could probably be enjoyed by people who have never considered themselves fans of Bond films before; they may even benefit from the lack of baggage that the series inevitably carries. It succeeds as a compelling character study of a man who is altogether different from the versions of Bond that we’ve seen in the past (with the possible exception of the rest of Craig’s canon), and that is something that can rarely – if ever – be said for the franchise. At the core of 007’s latest outing is the question that seldom gets asked: “who is James Bond?” Most surprisingly, the film gives us a genuine answer, and I’m not exactly sure it’s the one that people were expecting.

Most of SKYFALL’s thematic weight comes in the form of Bond’s relevance at various, sometimes theoretical, moments in his life: his present, his future and, most importantly, his past. This film delves further into the character’s past than any that I know of that have come before it, all the way back to his childhood. Needless to say, the traumatic experiences of Bond’s childhood factor not only into the necessary unraveling of the character’s psyche, but into SKYFALL’s actual plot. This is a film about James Bond; not James Bond trying to save the world, not James Bond trying to save Mother England – just James Bond. Who is this man? Where does he come from? Where is he going? The answers are, again, surprisingly poignant, resonant and particularly relevant.

Because, yes, this is yet another contemporary James Bond film about the character’s relevance in a modern world. Yet, unlike GOLDENEYE – whose answer to that question lay in an audience-reflective statement about our enduring need for a hero figure, even after the Cold War – SKYFALL’s answer is more internal. There are various (read: copious) references made throughout the film to how sometimes “the old ways are better” – suggesting that, yes, the world still needs a hero like James Bond to protect us from those in the shadows  – but the story itself tells something of a different tale. In spite of M’s (Judi Dench) insistence that the apparently-outdated system of MI6 is still relevant, Mendes makes it clear that the fallibility of this institution is exactly why we still need it. Our heroes may not crack puns as often as they used to (not that there aren’t a few particularly pleasing ones thrown around here for good measure); they may actually take a few bullets in the line of duty; they may actually get killed in the line of duty; and they may be vulnerable, tortured and complex souls which defend freedoms in spite of their lack of indestructible cartoonish-ness, but we do still need them. Now more than ever, it seems. We may actually need them because of those things.

And so we are left with a spectacularly compelling interpretation of a character that has been almost entirely static for nearly 50 years. Delving (ambiguously, of course) into Bond’s past means we can actually begin to discern a few things about what makes this raw, killing machine tick. What was his childhood like? Who were his parents? Why not just “stay dead”, given the chance? M’s self-serving statement (“To hell with dignity; I’ll quit when the job’s done”) may tell something of the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth; at least, not for Bond. What does his incessant, nearly blind loyalty to a matriarchal system (both in his office and his country) say about who he is as a person? And left to linger inside of that system, who does Bond become if he cannot rectify these answers within himself?

The answer comes in the unlikeliest of packages: Javier Bardem’s fantastic performance as ex-MI6 agent Silva. Made up with blonde hair and blue eyes, Silva’s haunting physical parallel to Bond is immediately apparent, and it sets off a kindred that is at once both unsettling and fascinating. Silva’s terrifying psychological relationship to M is uncomfortably similar to Bond’s, and it’s a remarkably poignant peek at what James Bond, left to his own devices and freed from the shackles of perpetual reinvention, might become.

So, Mendes skillfully takes SKYFALL beyond the boundaries of yet again answering how this “relic of the Cold War” could possibly still be useful. Instead, we’re given a look at not just how he could be useful, but why he might be necessary – to keep his country safe from others as much as from himself. All of this is resolved in an incredibly left-field, risky third act which serves to thematically enrich the character on a multitude of levels in spite of its seeming randomness. It’s a bold move, one which will undoubtedly leave many disappointed and scratching their heads – but it’s effective and refreshing enough to close out the film with suitable resonance.

Other noteworthy elements of the film include the introduction of a more ensemble-based cast, similar to earlier entries in the franchise. By the end of the film, all of the pieces of MI6 are put firmly back into place in a way which hasn’t been seen in the series for a decade. Most notably are the inclusions of the always-stellar Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, Ben Wishaw as the new Q and Naomie Harris as Eve. Performances are strong across the board, though it’s difficult for any to shine too brightly from beneath the shadow of Craig, Bardem and Dench.

Lastly, but certainly not least, is Roger Deakins, the unsung hero of SKYFALL. The nine-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer sets the bar so high, it’ll be hard to come back from in future installments. SKYFALL is, simply put, breathtaking. It’s the finest camera work ever done on a Bond film, bar none. And though the Macau sequence is of particular note for its stunning imagery, its the Shanghai and Scotland sequences that will stick with you long after you’ve left the theater.

For Shanghai, Deakins provides the usual, mesmerizing visuals that the city inherently provides: neon lights swirl, reflective surfaces trick the eye on a continuous basis and light and shadows intermingle gorgeously. It is here where Deakins establishes Bond as a figure of the shadows, a visual (and literal) motif which is stated and repeated throughout the film for both him and Silva. The fight scene which takes place amongst these shadows is some of the most elegant action ever performed in a Bond film.

Meanwhile, Deakins’ shots of Scotland’s landscapes are absolutely unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine that you’re actually watching a 007 film during those brief moments of sweeping vistas. It’s really something special, and fans should be proud to have had the legendary cinematographer lend his talents to the franchise.

All-in-all, the film isn’t perfect. The last act is mildly troublesome, but certainly not a deal-breaker – especially considering what comes out of it and how bold of a direction it is for a film in this franchise. It’s hard to nitpick the little things though, when SKYFALL might just be the finest outing James Bond has ever embarked upon. For fans and non-fans alike.

9/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Childish Gambino’s ROYALTY

Donald Glover has had a great year. After years of experimenting with acting, rapping and writing, it seems like every aspect of his multifaceted talent have culminated all at once: he’s won a WGA award for writing on 30 ROCK, a TV Guide Award for acting on COMMUNITY, and his one-two musical punch of last year’s EP and his debut studio album CAMP finally gave him the musical recognition he (also) deserves.  Now, Glover is back under his Childish Gambino moniker for a television-off-season mixtape, ROYALTY.

And while ROYALTY is less polished, personal and unique than the amazing CAMP was, the mixtape has its own distinct and wonderful flavor, and still happens to be a fantastic release from the young star.  Peppered with star cameos – everybody from Beck to RZA; even Tina Fey(!?) makes an appearance – the mixtape is a much more straightforward hip-hop offering than the stylistically diverse CAMP, which should please fans of the genre. Most of the beats are memorable – did I really hear the theme song to SIGNS on “Arrangement”? – and the production is handled mostly by Gambino himself. There are a few outside producers, though; like Beck, who helms two tracks, including the excellent “Silk Pillow”, where he even throws in a verse or two.

In true mixtape fashion, ROYALTY reuses certain cues and motifs that pop up over and over again throughout the tape, to convincing effect. The result is a very cohesive offering that plays like a singular, unified entity, for better or worse; unfortunately, this also has the undesired effect of having all of the songs bleed together in a way that makes the middle of the disc (download?) sort of forgettable after the absolutely stellar opening. Luckily, the album rebounds beautifully in the final quarter, pulling out wonderful beats, verses and hooks (even despite Gambino’s lamentation about them not being hooks on “Bronchitis”), especially on the lush “Wonderful” and “Make it Go Right”.

There are a few real gems in here that Gambino fans will definitely latch onto , specifically the opening track, “We Ain’t Them” and the familiar-sounding “Won’t Stop”. And despite a middle section that drags, it’s still another excellent offering from the ridiculously talented Glover.

Download: http://childishgambino.com/iamdonald/mixtape/ROYALTY.zip

Standout tracks: “We Ain’t Them”, “Wonderful” and “Silk Pillow”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

Micro-Review: Delicate Steve’s POSITIVE FORCE

Delicate Steve is one of those un-categorizable groups that defy almost everything that seems safe and easy about music. Hailing from the Garden State, the band’s instrumental music is composed entirely by the titular guitarist / songwriter, Steve Marion, whose only musical consistency seems to be his bizarre but instantly recognizable guitar tone: equal parts MIDI track, pipe organ and electric guitar, there’s just nothing else quite like it out there. After releasing a debut album (WONDERVISIONS) and taking to the road with fellow genre-defiant, post-rock(?) allies Fang Island (along with backing band Mike Duncan, Adam Pumilia, Christian Peslak and Mickey Sanchez), Marion returns here with his sophomore offering: POSITIVE FORCE.

At a brisk 37-minutes, POSITIVE FORCE is as good a gateway into Delicate Steve’s music as any; it’s as eccentric, scatterbrained and oddly comforting as anything else that the musician has released thus far. Though the sonic texture seems on par with his debut, it’s hard to accurately judge just what “consistent” might be when your textures are as impossible to nail down as they are here. Still, it goes without saying that there is a general air of maturity that makes this a far more compelling release than the debut. There is an overall atmosphere that is generally less in-your-face about its eccentricities and more about creating a singular, oddly soothing tone that permeates the entirety of the record.

What Marion creates here that was missing from WONDERVISIONS is a sense of space -and there is certainly a lot of it. Almost space-rock-esque in its airy, electronic sensibilities, Marion injects POSITIVE FORCE with an irresistible, calming sensation that replaces the bouncing, bubbling absurdity of the last release. He’s certainly improved on his overall songwriting abilities, as well; screeching guitar lines make way to a far more meticulous compositional palette, and the instrumentation, as a result, tends to be far more interesting and balanced here. He even throws in a few instances of vocal texturing – something new for the project – on tracks like “Two Lovers”, “Love” and “Redeemer”, the latter of which bears an unmistakable, vocal aesthetic similarity to the equally experimental “Trembling Hands” off of Explosions in the Sky’s latest offering.

Whereas WONDERVISIONS was delightfully over-the-top and peculiarly refreshing, POSITIVE FORCE is breezy, looser and far more aesthetically pleasing – the mark of a maturing musician, no doubt. And with such a long career ahead of him, there’s no reason why Marion won’t continue to grow and impress from here on out.

Standout tracks: “Two Lovers”, “Positive Force”, “Africa Talks to You”.

8/10

d.a. garabedian