"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Burt Reynolds and the End of the Movie Star

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 38 seconds

Burt Reynolds died on Thursday at the age of 82. A review of his career reveals a great deal about not only the man, but the current state of Hollywood.

Burt Reynolds was once the king of Hollywood. For a period of time in the late 70's and early 80's, Burt Reynolds was the biggest movie star on the planet. From 1978 to 1982 Burt was the top box office draw for every single year, a five year run that in the history of cinema is only matched by Bing Crosby's 5 year run in the late 1940's.

What makes Burt Reynolds magnificent box office run all the more a monument to his star power and charm is that the movies Burt churned out during this stretch were absolutely abysmal. Here are the films that Burt Reynolds sold to the public to become box office champ for a record five years straight.

1978 - The End, Hooper. 1979 - Starting Over. 1980 - Rough Cut, Smokey and the Bandit II. 1981 - The Cannonball Run, Paternity, Sharkey's Machine. 1982 - Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Best Friends.

That is a Murderer's Row of completely forgettable, horrendously awful movies. But the cinematic atrocities that are those films only act as incontrovertible evidence of the tremendous mega-movie star Burt Reynolds really was. Audiences didn't show up at movie theaters to see these films for any other reason than to get to hang out with Burt for two hours.

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Burt's formula for success was simple...just be Burt, the fun lovin', handsome, good ole boy that he was, who guys wanted to be and women wanted to be with. Didn't matter the story or the character, as long as Burt was on camera people would pay money to see it. Burt was...well...Burt...sort of a one man Rat Pack, with Bacchanal Burt as the Pope of the Church of Shits and Giggles, which is why he was such a sought after guest on The Tonight Show or any other talk show.

Burt's films, particularly the mind-numbingly awful Cannonball Run movies, are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven franchise, in that audiences are basically paying to watch famous, good-looking rich people have fun with each other. Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen are a way for regular folks to get to hang out with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon for two hours and feel like part of the crew. Audiences get to watch these "stars" dress up, be witty and outsmart everyone and get to be in on the joke.

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Burt Reynolds film's are the same formula as Ocean's Eleven except Burt didn't need a bunch of other stars, he was big enough and bright enough to carry a movie all on his own. Sure, he'd have Mel Tillis or Dom DeLuise caddy for him, but Burt didn't need them, he was doing them a favor and kept them around because they made HIM laugh.

Burt was so big from '78 to '82 that if you melded George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon at the height of their careers into one, you'd still have to add in Matthew McConnaghey in order to have it all add up to be even remotely close to peak Burt Reynolds. That is stunning for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that it shows how staggeringly magnetic Burt Reynolds was back in the day, but also the shocking dearth of movie stars walking the planet now.

Could any actor working today draw audiences with the cavalcade of crap that Burt Reynolds was churning out during his heyday?  Not a chance. Tom Cruise is the closest actor since Burt to capture the public's imagination in the same way, he has been a box office champ 7 times over three decades (80's, 90's, 00's), but Cruise never accomplished it in consecutive years never mind five years running. 

Unlike Burt, Cruise has benefited by starring in the big budget Mission Impossible franchise and in a few Spielberg extravaganzas. Even Cruise's earlier, more critically acclaimed work, was a result of his being secondary to his directors. Born on the Fourth of July is not a Tom Cruise film, it is an Oliver Stone film, and the same could be said of Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick) or The Color of Money (Scorsese).

Burt Reynolds didn't work with big name directors, in fact, remarkably enough, Burt actually directed two of the film's in which he starred during his box office championship run, 1978's The End and 1982's Sharkey's Machine...that is absolutely insane.

When it comes to the "movie stars" of the current era the proof is in the pudding, and today's pudding shows us a paucity of stars so stunning that the cupboard is basically completely bare.

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Tom Cruise has a big box office hit this year with his latest Mission Impossible monstrosity, but without that franchise or a big name director, Cruise's ability to attract audiences on his own has diminished in striking ways over the last twenty years. Since 1996's Jerry Maguire, Cruise has been under performed on his own without the friendly confines of a big budget franchise or the assistance of name directors, like Spielberg and Kubrick, who overshadow him.

Many thought George Clooney was the heir apparent to the movie star throne, but he isn't ready for the crown as shown by the recent poor box office results of Tomorrowland and Monuments Men, and as the Ocean's Eleven films show, he needs not just one other star to help him over the finish line, but a cornucopia of stars.

Brad Pitt had his moment in the sun but was always more of a second rate Robert Redford than an imitation of Burt Reynolds, and has never had the box office impact of either man.

Matthew McConnaghey has churned out similarly awful films to Burt's sub-par canon, but he has never even remotely approached the star wattage or box office prowess of Burt.

Leonardo DiCaprio is often considered a movie star, but Leo is much more of an actor than a movie star, and his inability to open films on his own without the benefit of a big name director like Scorsese, Spielberg or Christopher Nolan is testament to that fact.

Studios have figured out that nowadays it is about teaming auteurs like Scorsese, PT Anderson, Inarritu or Tarantino, with name actors in order to generate profits. The auteurs alone, or the stars alone, just don't cut it anymore, so the studios combine them together.

The film industry has changed dramatically in other ways since Burt Reynolds ruled the roost, as studios have discovered it isn't the stars that make a movie, but the characters, and so studios have slowly transitioned from building movie star brands to creating big budget franchises. Boiled down to its essence, this approach is basically, It doesn't matter who plays Batman, people will see a Batman movie.

As a result, actors try and attach themselves to these franchises in order to become "movie stars"...but the truth is the actors are, like sports stars for people's favorite teams, just wearing the jersey. These sports stars could be traded to another team and wear another jersey next year, so the fans aren't really rooting for the players, they are rooting for the laundry.

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For example, Chris Pratt is a "big movie star" right now, and to his credit he can carry a movie, but no one is dropping $14 to go see Chris Pratt, but they will pay to see Chris Pratt in Jurassic World or Guardians of the Galaxy. Same is true of the other Chris's...Chris Helmsworth, Chris Pine and Chris Evans...otherwise known as Thor, Captain Kirk and Captain America. Those guys are decent enough actors, but no one rushes out to see them in anything unless they are playing their signature franchise roles.

What is staggering to consider is that Burt Reynolds could have been an even bigger star than he was. Burt notoriously turned down the role of Han Solo in the Star Wars franchise and John McClane in the Die Hard franchise, which if he had starred in those films only would have extended and expanded his box office dominance to such exorbitant heights as to be ridiculous, adding at least $4 billion more to his overall box office tally.

Besides making poor movie business decisions, Burt also made bad artistic decisions which hurt him in his attempt to score prestige points. For instance, besides turning down Han Solo and John McClane, Burt also turned down the role of Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, which won Jack Nicholson an Oscar and may have done the same for Burt.

Burt Reynolds as an actor, was, to be frank, pretty dreadful, mostly because he just didn't give a shit. Burt was more interested in having fun and feeling safe rather than pushing himself as an artist. Burt the actor liked to take the easy road, and for the artist, that road ultimately leads to nowhere.

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That said, Burt he did rise to the occasion twice in his career, in the two best films he ever made. In the 1972 classic Deliverance, Burt embodied archetypal masculinity to a tee and elevated the film to great artistic heights. Burt's performance as Lewis Medlock, the bow wielding alpha male on a river adventure in the backwoods of Georgia, gave audiences a glimpse of his acting potential. Sadly, it would take another 25 years before Burt ever even approached the same level of artistic achievement in PT Anderson's 1997 masterpiece, Boogie Nights, as porn impresario Jack Horner.

Burt's Jack Horner is an extension of Lewis Medlock, he is like Zeus, a great father to the panoply of gods and goddesses atop the Mount Olympus of porn. Horner is Medlock grown old, still the dominant alpha male but using his brain more and his phallus less.

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In one of the great displays of foolhardy hubris, Burt, who admitted that over his career he only took roles he thought were fun, hated the greatest film in which he ever appeared, Boogie Nights. Burt ranted that he didn't like the movie or the director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Burt's public distancing from the film no doubt led to his losing his only chance to win an Oscar, as he was nominated but refused to campaign and ended up losing to Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), and ended up scuttling what could have been his acting renaissance.

If Burt didn't have such a pedestrian taste in film, such a voracious appetite for the inconsequential and such a artistically myopic outlook, he could have been not just the George Clooney + Brad Pitt + Matt Damon + Matthew McConnaghey of his day, but also the Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis of the 80's/90's and a multiple Oscar winner to boot...which would have made Burt Reynolds the biggest movie star of all-time. Instead what we got was bacchanalian Burt, boozing with buddies, chasing skirts and ultimately chasing his own tail.

In conclusion, even though Burt Reynolds was a mega-movie star for a period, the likes of which the film business has rarely ever seen, it is difficult not to lament Burt's career with a quote from the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, "For all the sad words of tongue and pen, The Saddest are these, 'It might have been'."

©2018

 

 

 

Justice League: A Review

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***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!***

My Rating: 2.65 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT: See it in the theatre if you are a comic book/superhero film fan, it is worth the effort. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about comic book/superhero films then feel free to skip it in the theatre and see it on Netflix or cable. 

Justice League, written by Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder (with re-shoots directed by Whedon), is the fifth film in the D.C. Extended Universe and is a sequel to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film is the completion of the origin story of the Justice League, which is a collection of superheroes who join together to fight evil. The film stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Mamoa, Ezra Miller and Henry Cavill. 

My experience of Justice League was very similar to my experience of 2016's Batman v. Superman (BvS). I did not see Batman v. Superman until very late in its theatrical run, therefore even though I do not read reviews, I had seen enough headlines to understand that the film was not widely loved…or even mildly liked. With my expectations very low I went and saw Batman v. Superman and much to my shock and amazement I joined the rarest of groups, the handful of people who actually enjoyed Batman v Superman a great deal. It wasn't a perfect movie but it was certainly better than all of the negative buzz that was floating around about it.

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When Justice League came out last month on November 17th, I once again avoided reviews but was still exposed to a deluge of negative buzz surrounding the film before I saw it on December 19. And just like when I saw Batman v. Superman, the theatre for Justice League was deserted except for the three other people.  And…just like with Batman v. Superman, my expectations were in the gutter for Justice League and either in spite of or because of that, the movie was able to greatly exceed them leaving me most pleasantly surprised. 

Justice League is supposed to be DC's attempt (at Warner Brothers insistence) at "lightening things up" from the dark themes and tone of BvS and being more "audience friendly". While I am not a fan of "lightening things up" in general and was attracted to the darkness of Batman v. Superman, I was not turned off by the more approachable tone of Justice League. Would I have liked a much darker version? Most definitely…but Justice League held onto enough darkness that it maintained a certain superhero gravitas that I found compelling. 

It has been my experience that while the rest of the world adores the Marvel franchise, I am more temperamentally suited for the brooding DC universe. The DC films have on the whole been pretty uneven, with Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman and Justice League being pretty good and Suicide Squad and Man of Steel being abysmally bad. What I liked about Batman v. Superman and Justice League are that they are both cloaked in a very heavy, existential angst that regular folk may find boring and impenetrable, but which I find very philosophically intriguing and creatively courageous. In contrast, I find the Marvel films to be much too light-hearted and frivolous and to be lacking in visual and narrative texture. Marvel films are made for kids while DC films, at least Batman v. Superman and Justice League, are made for tormented kids who've grown old. While Justice League is definitely not a great film, it is probably at best an average cinematic venture, but it is still considerably better than many of the Marvel/Avenger movies. 

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Justice League benefits greatly from Zack Snyder's visual style that gives the film a distinct look and feel that the flat and cinematically dull Marvel films lack entirely. Snyder's Justice League world looks like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape, which is only heightened by its being populated  by hordes of villains, para-demons, who may very well have flown out of a Bosch painting. Snyder has always thrived when it comes to giving a film a distinguishing and original look, and so it is with Justice League.

On the other hand, Snyder has always struggled with narrative clarity and cohesion and while he doesn't excel at that in Justice League, he doesn't entirely flounder either. Justice League is more coherently structured than Batman v. Superman and flows better, that comes at the expense of dumbing things down and settling for a standard and generic approach over a more complex and challenging one.

I had a chance to see the extended directors cut of Batman v Superman and thought it added a great deal to the film and I hope that Warner Brothers releases an extended Zack Snyder cut of Justice League as well at some point as I think that Snyder can be at his best when he is free of the restraints of running length and focus groups. 

Justice League is greatly enhanced by a top notch cast that all do solid if not spectacular work. I realize I am in the minority here but I think Ben Affleck does a terrific job as Batman. Affleck's caped crusader is a grizzled, aching and aging icon struggling to keep up with his more supernaturally endowed colleagues and keep the undefeated father time at bay. Affleck is not an actor whose work I have been impressed with over his career, but his brooding Batman is second only to Christian Bale, and it isn't a distant second either.

Gal Gadot is simply sublime as Wonder Woman for the second time this year. Gadot is such a charismatic, magnetic and dynamic power it is impossible to keep your eyes off of her when she is on screen. Gadot's commanding screen presence never feels forced or disingenuous, but always feels grounded, earthy and forceful.  

Jason Mamoa and Ezra Miller do solid supporting work as Aquaman and Flash. Their roles are used to good comedic effect in Justice League (they do most of the previously mentioned "lightening up") but they could have been greatly bungled in the hands of lesser actors. Both Mamoa and Miller never push too hard and they make specific choices for their characters while never settling for half measures when bringing them to life. I don't know if Aquaman or the Flash will be able to carry a film on their own, but we shall see soon enough. 

As for my biggest issues with Justice League…the first and most pressing issue was that the CGI seemed to be rather sub par. Steppenwolf was the arch villain in the film and instead of using a human actor, they made him entirely of CGI. The CGI simply did not look real or believable and so it felt like the members of the Justice League were fighting a really evil cartoon character. 

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Another example of bad CGI is such a remarkable tale it demands retelling. The opening scene of the film shows a flashback of Henry Cavill as Superman being interviewed on a video phone by some local kids. Cavill, who is impossibly handsome, looks very...weird in the scene. I couldn't place it at first, but there was something wrong with his face. As I looked closer I could see his mouth was deformed. I started wondering if Henry Cavill in real life had an accident or been sick and was left with some sort of facial paralysis or something. I noticed the same issue at other points in the film featuring Cavill as well and was completely distracted by it every time. When I got home I searched the internet and found out the story behind the bizarre look of Superman. 

The story goes that Cavill was signed on to shoot Mission Impossible 6 (God help us all) once he wrapped shooting Justice League. Justice League director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film in post-production due to the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon stepped in to replace him. The studio wanted Whedon to do a plethora of re-shoots to change the tone of the film which they feared was too dark like Batman v. Superman. Whedon complied and did a great deal of re-shoots to the sum of $25 million. Bringing back Cavill for Superman was tricky though because he was currently shooting MI6 and had grown a mustache for his role and was contractually obligated to not shave it off for the duration of that shoot. So Warner Brothers, the studio of Justice League, which had a budget of $300 million, was at the mercy of Paramount, the home studio of Mission Impossible, in regards to their star Superman. Paramount, not surprisingly since they are not in the business of making life easy for their competition, wouldn't let Cavill get rid of the mustache. So billion dollar company Warner Brothers, who was spending $300 million on Justice League, was not allowed to walk down to CVS and get a Bic razor for 99 cents in order to shave the face of the star of their movie. The movie business is completely and utterly insane. 

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Superman and Steppenwolf's faces aren't the only missteps in Justice League. The enormity of the plot was a bit burdensome as well. All of these superhero movies now revolve around end of the world cataclysms that seem to me to be overkill. Whether it is the Justice League or the Avengers or anyone else, the threat of global annihilation is so overplayed as to be ridiculously redundant. And as much as I think Steppenwolf in theory is an excellent villain (although as stated he didn't look right in the film) and his minions the para-demons are quality Miltonian/Boschean foils, the scenario presented by their assault on Earth felt much too similar to The Avengers plots with Loki or Ultron. In execution I think Justice League pulled that scenario off better than The Avengers, but that doesn't make their lack of originality any less of a creative sin. 

The political subtext of Justice League is pretty interesting. Steppenwolf is a Putin-esque, power hungry warlord who begins his quest for total world domination in what is alleged to be a small Russian town but looks an awful lot like Chernobyl in Ukraine. Justice League accurately captures the divided mess that is our current world as we stagger and stumble from a uni-polar world protected by Superman/U.S. to a multi-polar world reigned over by God knows who, that acts like a bi-polar world. 

The Justice League itself is obviously a metaphor for the United Nations or the defunct League of Nations, in which the good guys protect the globe from the bad guys. Of course, life is never as clearly defined as that, and in our world it is becoming more and more difficult to discover who is good and who is bad. To Justice League's credit, the good guys aren't always so good and they struggle to find their place in the world.

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After seeing Justice League I did something I rarely do, which is go read other reviews of the film. Critics have savaged the film with an unabashed glee and seem to have a pre-disposition against the movie. While it was never stated, I think that predisposition to critical displeasure with Justice League (and Batman V. Superman) may have to do with critics subconsciously comparing the film to the last "Batman" movies which were Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy which are a far, far superior collection of films. Any superhero films compared to the Dark Knight Trilogy will pale in comparison as Nolan has raised the superhero bar beyond anyone’s reach with those phenomenal films. To be extremely clear, Batman v. Superman and Justice League are not The Dark Knight series, not even remotely close, but that doesn't mean they are completely devoid of any redeeming value.

The mythic and archetypal energies at the core of all of these these superhero stories, be they DC or Marvel, is the same, it is just the window dressing that changes. The core archetypes at the heart of superhero stories are what resonate with our collective psyches. Just as the Greeks told stories of their Gods, we tell stories of our mythic gods…Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Flash. These comic book characters and the Greek gods are the same archetypes but are only wearing different masks. 

In conclusion, I found Justice League to be a pleasant surprise of a movie that wasn't great, but was certainly better than its buzz would indicate. Justice League is a solid companion piece to Batman v Superman and in fact enhances that film a great deal in hindsight. If you love superhero films then I recommend you go see Justice League in the theatre while it is still there. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about superhero films then you can definitely skip it in the theatre and catch it at your leisure on cable or Netflix. And finally, in this holiday season when we anticipate a bounty of gifts beneath the Christmas tree, let Justice League be a lesson to us all, that low expectations are the golden key to a happy existence. 

©2017

 

Dunkirk : Random Thoughts

****THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SOME MINOR SPOILERS****

Estimated Reading Time : 6 minutes 39 seconds

After seeing Dunkirk I exited the theatre and sat in the lobby at an isolated table next to a big window that gave me a nice view of most of Los Angeles. I sat there and jotted down my thoughts on the film and once that was done, I kept on jotting. In a near stream of consciousness, I scribbled down everything that came flooding into my mind. These thoughts may be completely incoherent, totally random and not make a lick of sense, but if you think that means I'm not going to share them with you then you don't know me very well. So sit back, relax and enjoy unfettered access to the dark corners of my post-Dunkirk mind.

BREXIT STAGE LEFT

Director Christopher Nolan's politics are always difficult to read, but it strikes me that his newest tour-de-force, Dunkirk, is an unabashed metaphor for modern-day Britain escaping the EU before that whole enterprise goes under.

One supporting clue to that thesis is that the first civilian small boat that crosses the channel and lands on France's shore to save and extract British soldiers from Europe is named "New Britannia". Add to that the films overall underlying premise that Brits are palpably and desperately yearning for "home", and Kenneth Branagh's Henry V-esque role/performance, and it seems pretty clear.

This is obviously an interesting time for Dunkirk to be hitting the theaters. In Britain, the tumultuous uncertainty of the impending Brexit (along with the fact that Theresa May's government is teetering) hovers over the nation like a dense fog. To many this is a catastrophe on par with the British armies defeat at Dunkirk. At this darkest hour comes Dunkirk, a film, and a story, that highlights the very best of Britishness, their resilience, resourcefulness and stiff-upper lip and all that. That Britishness was on full display in 1940 at Dunkirk when the Brits had their back against the wall and all, including the war and the world, seemed lost, but they rose to the occasion back then for their finest hour. 

Love it or loathe it, the British will now have to withdraw back to the their island fortress and work together in order to survive the coming inevitable post-Brexit winter. I happen to think that Brexit will be revealed to be a prescient decision by the Brits once the financial troubles and civilizational clashes in the EU boil over and chaos ensues. The UK will then have a head start in localization and in rebuilding their nation, traditional national identity and economy well before the other EU nations are forced to do the same by economic and political forces well beyond their control or knowledge. The movie Dunkirk also gives some not so subtle signs as to what it believes will happen to the French (and the rest of Europe) in the coming years, as there is one major French character in the film and he ends up at the bottom of the channel, unable to escape the rising tide that is destined to engulf the EU.

The film Dunkirk can be a roadmap for the British to follow in their flight from Europe and return to "home". They must change course by jettisoning the historic shackles of their own imperialism and colonialism and prioritizing their own national interests and the interests of their native and traditional peoples. Many folks will get hurt, some will be left behind and some will die. But it all MUST happen if Britain, the nation and culture, is to live to see another day. Similar to how after the actual evacuation of Dunkirk the Brits, my Scottish grandmother and her children among them, had to suffer through the blitz by seeking refuge in tube stations as the German bombardment raged overhead, so it will be with post-Brexit Britain. As the world order tumbles, and the EU crumbles, Britain will have to hunker down in order to avoid and survive the external onslaught.  

THE OLD ORDER IS DEAD

The U.S. global empire is over. Neo-liberalism is dead. China and Russia are potentially ascendant because they will be able to withstand hardships and instability much better than their counter-parts in the west due to their more recent experience with calamity and their less diverse make-up. Having a more homogeneous population will make for less ethnic competition and confrontation as resources dwindle and power consolidates especially in cultures that are not born of a melting pot. Also to the Sino-Russian advantage, is that they are beginning to work much more closely together in regards to their economies, resources and militaries in order to ascend to power and eclipse the fading star that is U.S. global hegemony. 

From the rubble of neo-liberalism and the old world order, post-Brexit Britain will have a chance to rise from the ashes and will benefit from having a head start on most of the rest of the Europe. "Dunkirk" will be the first step in Britain's grand Brexit maneuver. First comes consolidation (Dunkirk), then comes resilience and localization (the Blitz), then comes intelligent re-ordering of priorities and the world order.

In world war two, Britain allied with the hated Soviets in order to defeat Nazism. And regardless of what you've been taught in school, it was the Soviets who defeated Hitler, not the British and Americans. And so it will be in post-Brexit and "Blitz" Britain, where the Brits will realize that the U.S. has become a global albatross around their necks, and that Russia and China and others are the most rational choice for allies and very limited partnerships, regardless of their obvious flaws.

THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT

Look, I understand that these thoughts will be unpopular and deemed unpleasant at best. I am not endorsing this inevitable trajectory, only acknowledging it. The writing is on the wall and to ignore it would not only be the height of folly but perilous. Understanding where the collective unconscious is leading humanity is vital in order to prepare for and respond to the black swan events that sneak up on us but are all too obvious in hindsight. My Isaiah Wave Theory®© shows that film, in conjunction with other social/economic/historical/political trends, can be a very critical element in getting a glimpse into the collective unconscious to see what lies ahead for us. Just like 2016 when the story lines, color schemes and visuals of Captain America: Civil WarBatman v. Superman: Dawn of JusticeX-Men: Apocalypse, Rogue One and even La La Land  were telling us of the disastrous clash awaiting us later in the year (2015 films The Revenant, The Martian, The Hateful Eight, Avengers : Age of Ultron and Star Wars : A Force Awakens portended the same exact thing), so it is with Dunkirk, War for the Planet of the Apes, Logan and Wonder Woman this year. As the Game of Thrones has been telling us over the last few years, "Winter is Coming"…well...I have bad news for you, "Winter is Here". Or more accurately, "The Long, Cold Winter of our Discontent has just Begun".

THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD

There has been a lot of talk about how the Brexit vote and Trump's victory in America are actually outliers, and that the right-wing or the alt-right trends are receding worldwide. People often point to Geert Wilders defeat in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen's loss to Macron in France's last election as proof of this fact. There are many things wrong about not only that interpretation of those election results but the premise of an alt-right ascendancy or decline.

Let's start with the former. What is really happening now with Trump and Brexit as examples, is not an alt-right/right wing rise, but rather the collapse of the center and the establishment. Yeats, as a million writers (myself included) remind us ad nauseum, tells us that "the center cannot hold", and that is where we are now. This is why it is so vital for the democrats to jettison the centrist, neo-liberal, "Clinton-way" and embrace a far left economic ideology. Many democrats keep telling me that to defeat Trump they must position themselves as the centrist and "rational" party. I understand the sentiment as Trump seems so outrageous that by going to the center democrats believe they will flourish. This could not be further from the truth. A leftist, not liberal, but leftist, economic agenda is the only thing that will defeat Trumpism. More of the same Wall Street corporate ass kissing will be punished by voters because the establishment, media included, is in a credibility death spiral. Trump won by out flanking democrats to their left economically, democrats simply must go further out on the flank to defeat him and the republicans next time. And it is important to note that what is vital is a leftist economic message, not a culturally liberal message. A culturally liberal agenda with its accompanying substance-free identity politics will be doomed to fail and will scuttle the entire progressive ship right along with it. 

Jeremy Corbyn's powerful rise in the last British snap election, despite constant attacks on him by the media and the Blairites in his own party, is proof of the current vitality of this old school leftist ideology. Labour's showing in that election was stunning, but not for those who can properly read the tea leaves. I saw it coming just as I saw Trump's victory coming, and could not understand how others didn't see it coming. 

There are democrats who have poo-pooed Corbyn and Labour's stunning election showing by saying, "they didn't actually win". This is myopic analysis at best. Corbyn is actually better positioned now because he didn't win and become Prime Minister. He can sit back and prepare for his ascent to 10 Downing Street while Theresa May is on the hook for all of the failures of her makeshift coalition government. Corbyn is a shadow Prime Minister, which means power with no responsibility…in other words, the catbird seat. And of those establishmentarians diminishing Corbyn's election results, imagine if the entire mainstream media and a good number of his own party hadn't attacked him relentlessly and mercilessly at every turn…he and Labour might actually have won outright.

As for the election in the Netherlands and Geet Wilders, people terribly misread that result in regard to a wider trend. Wilders is a one man gang and it was impossible for him to actually ascend to power. What he was able to do though is push the center right party out towards him at the far right, as they fully embraced his stances on immigration, for example, and won the election. This was an electoral loss for Wilders, but a resounding ideological victory

APRES MACRON - LE DELUGE

As for France, democrats and the establishment media in America have been touting Macron as the second coming who will save centrism and neo-liberalism from the populist hordes. Guess again. This is just another mis-reading of the trend. All of the mainstream, traditional parties in France were decimated and didn't even make it to the final round of the presidential election. Macron ran and won as an outsider (even though he is a consummate insider). His victory over Le Pen  and the more baser instincts of the populace, will only be temporary as he is not only terribly ill-equipped to deal with the existential threats to France, he is completely blind to them. He, like Trump, is wrapping the same old turd in a different type of bread, but it will still taste like a shit sandwich once everyone has to take a bite of it. 

Macron will fail in France because the ground he stands on is quicksand. There will be more terror attacks which will stoke the fires of ethnic nationalism even further. At some point, probably after a particularly nasty attack and/or an economic earthquake, people will say enough, and it won't matter what your passport says, the French will brutally evict or restrict anyone who doesn't look "traditionally French". Many think this is an impossibility and tell me so. This makes me laugh as France and a whole bunch of other European countries have, in living memory, been ruthlessly efficient in removing a population they deem troublesome. If you don't think it can happen again, you are fooling yourself.

ONCE MORE UPON THE BREACH, DEAR FRIENDS, ONCE MORE; OR CLOSE THE WALL UP WITH OUR ENGLISH DEAD!

The same will happen in Britain. Citizenship will not matter as much as tribalism once the heat of civilizational clash and economic instability rises to an unbearable level. Just this year England has suffered through multiple terror attacks that are like logs on a camels back. At some point, the camels back will shatter and the Islamists will get the blowback they want, but it won't go quite as well as they expect. In a clash of civilizations, always bet on the home team…in the middle east bet the Islamists, in Europe/UK bet the natives. Britain will probably recede back into England, with Northern Ireland, Scotland and maybe even Wales being jettisoned to independence in order for the English to survive the coming storm. 

Unlike America, all of these European countries are not built upon a culture of immigration. The English, French and German cultures (not nations) are thousands of years old. Those countries were built upon their cultures, and are now trying to transform into multi-cultural utopias that at their core they simply are not. These countries immigration issues stem from the evils of colonialism, and are in many ways are due punishment for those sins. But that doesn't mean the native culture will embrace change so easily or willingly. That is what is bubbling up from the collective unconscious in Europe and America right now, resistance to the other and a yearning for the tribally traditional and familiar.

THE #WOKE ARE #SOUNDASLEEP

The coming "winter" will bring with it a desolation that can be transformative, but only by those insightful enough to recognize it as an opportunity and not a catastrophe. This is why I find it so frustrating watching the democrats try and "resist" Trump with their nonsensical #staywoke idiocy and "A Better Deal" bullshit. The democrats I know are so desperate to hold onto the ideological corpse of neo-liberalism and American capitalism that their politics resembles little more than a stale Weekend at Bernie's sequel. These allegedly liberal democrats have fully embraced our nefarious intelligence community, neo-conservatives and their foreign policy, and unabashed corporatism while they cry racism, misogyny and xenophobia to anyone who points out their political hypocrisy and intellectual vacuity and vapidity. These dupes and dopes have absolutely no clue for what they fighting. Are they even aware that by protesting FOR Obamacare they are protesting for a right-wing, republican health care plan that is a corporate handout and are insuring that universal coverage/single-payer will never happen? And are these same fools even remotely aware that they are substantially diminishing the impact of the once devastating words racist, misogynist and xenophobe every single time they utter them. They use those words like Americans use antibiotics, as a first option, too frequently and when it is entirely unnecessary and inappropriate, and just like with antibiotics, overuse of those words greatly diminishes their potency.

You cannot "resist" Trump and Trumpism with Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. If you do you will fail. You cannot have the neo-liberal, corporate, holy trinity of Wall Street whores, Hillary, Nancy and Chuck roll out the "Better Deal" and have anyone take them seriously. The longer they are the face of the democratic party, the deeper the hole of credibility gets…so deep it might just be a grave. But try telling that to members of the Clinton cult and watch them shriek and scream with emotionalist abandon. This sorry group of people are so ill-prepared to do battle and succeed they should have "Born to Lose" tattooed across their chests.

OUR LAST, BEST HOPE

In contrast, Sanders and Corbyn are certainly not perfect, but they are exactly the way to counter the decomposing old order, even though they themselves are as old as dirt. Just like the billionaire plutocrat Trump was able to win as a populist, so can these two old timers win as a new wave of populist. Austerity has failed, not just in America but across the globe. "American capitalism" has failed. Imperialism has failed. You cannot try and prop them back up or re-inflate the bubble just one more time. An alternative solution must be presented, and when it is, if it is genuine, people will embrace it. Sanders and Corbyn are some of the alternate solutions, and they can fill the vacuum left by the collapsing center. But know this, if leftists do not fill that leadership void created in the wake of the disintegrating center, than a far right demagogue will. Trump did it this time but he is an ineffective fool. But next time, what if we get a ruthlessly effective and disciplined right wing demagogue…which in the post-Trump era is a very distinct and frightening possibility. This is why democrats and the Clinton cult better really "get woke", forget the luxury of culturally liberal politics and get on the economically progressive agenda or they will find themselves exiled to the wilderness at best, or blindfolded  and against the wall at worst . 

The cycle of history we are on is a perilous one, and it is fraught with many many dangers. The world will look considerably different in ten years than it does now, and it won't be because of technology, but rather ideology and economic seismology. The neo-liberal ideology is proven fraudulent and the coming economic/political seismological event that buries it forever will re-shape the world in ways which we can either shape to our benefit, or to our destruction. The first step is, with clear eyes and full heart, seeing and understanding what is happening and what is coming, and then strategically and tactically preparing for it so that what comes next is much better than what is left behind.

Ladies and gentlemen…thank you for enduring my post-Dunkirk rant. Maybe I was just shell-shocked by the film or maybe I am just a full-time maniac, or maybe, just maybe, I am on to something. Who knows? If I am wrong, it sure wouldn't be the first time…and if I am right, it wouldn't be the first time either. Only time will tell...don't forget to place your bets…and please tip the doorman on your way into the bunker.

©2017

 

 

Dunkirk : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating : 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT. See it in the theatre and see it in 70MM if you can.

Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, is the story of the emergency evacuation in 1940 of British forces from the French coastline as the German war machine quickly closed in around them during the second world war. The film features an ensemble cast that includes Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy. 

Dunkirk is a tense, taut, pulse-pounding and original piece of exquisite filmmaking. Christopher Nolan, who has made such notable movies as The Dark Knight Trilogy, Memento and Inception, outdoes himself with his stellar direction on Dunkirk. The film is minimalist in dialogue and character development, but maximalist in suspense, which is a remarkable achievement for a film that is re-telling such a well-known story from history. With Dunkirk, Nolan has masterfully made a classic movie with technical precision that boasts a very satisfying structural and dramatic symmetry. 

Nolan makes the interesting, and ultimately wise, choice to break the film into three separate story lines all with different perspectives of the massive British military escape from the clutches of the Germans. The three perspectives are, a regular British foot soldier in great peril and living a recurring nightmare (literally) of being stuck on the beach, an RAF pilot giving air cover, and a civilian father and son who take their small boat across the English channel to try and help rescue their countrymen. The shifting perspectives can be at times a little confusing as there are jumps in time that accompany them, but whatever narrative disruption this technique may bring it more than makes up for it with dramatic punch. 

The foot soldier's storyline is enhanced by Nolan's decision to cast three very similar looking actors to play the main characters trying to get out of Dunkirk and back to England. Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard all are gaunt, dark haired privates who will try anything to get out of the hell that is Dunkirk's beach. Whitehead, Styles and Barnard do excellent work with very little dialogue. They are focused on their objective, survival, and not on verbal communication. Whitehead in particular does terrific work that is both subtle and compelling. He has an expressive, everyman's face coupled with a subdued charisma that make for a dynamic performance. Styles is a famous boy band star in his own right, but to his credit he does surprisingly solid and steady work in Dunkirk.

Tom Hardy is superb as the RAF fighter pilot dueling with the Luftwaffa over the English Channel. Hardy has an air mask on his face for the overwhelming majority of his screen time, but while his face is covered, his charisma is not. Confining a volcanic talent like Hardy into the cockpit of a Spitfire has the potential to be a disaster, but Hardy is able to focus his energy and intent into his eyes and he lights up the screen. 

The civilian boaters are Mark Rylance, Tom-Glynn Carney and Barry Keoghan. Rylance is one of the great actors working today, and his work in Dunkirk is stellar. Rylance has a soft and gentle power about him that emanates through his entire performance. There is a quiet, steady strength in Rylance's character that is meant to symbolize the British everyman who, when his nation needs him, steps up and delivers. Rylance, who won a Best Supporting Oscar for his work in Bridge of Spies two years ago, may well garner another nomination with his work in Dunkirk

Kenneth Branagh has a pivotal supporting role as Commander Bolton, the pier-master who overseas the evacuation. Branagh, who, not coincidentally, came to prominence as the ultimate symbol of English resilience and strength, Shakespeare's Henry V, conjures up a similar energy as Bolton. Branagh is a fine actor, and his presence in the film is a crucial lynchpin that ties all of the different narratives together. 

Dunkirk will no doubt be nominated for multiple Academy Awards in many categories, but sound mixing and sound editing are a sure thing. The sound is absolutely fantastic and is pivotal in enhancing the film's pressure packed drama. The music has the same effect, as Hans Zimmer once again produces a pulsating and chilling score that elevates the film to the sublime. 

The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is transcendent as well. The film's crisp and lush visuals are absolutely beautiful to behold. Hoytema is able to imbue a distinct and effective style to the cinematography of the film without ever compromising in any of the three narratives. Hoytema's camera work in the water, on the beach and in the sky are all noteworthy for their disciplined impeccability. 

I saw Dunkirk at a high end theatre in 70MM and it was breathtaking. Sadly, even at my fancy cinema, there were issues with the projector and the film had to be stopped for a few minutes, and then when the film came back on they left the lights on in front of the screen for ten minutes, which is not exactly the optimal way to enjoy the film. But that said, the film was so good I was still able to enjoy it regardless of these distraction. If you do have the opportunity to see it in 70MM, you most definitely should. 

In Christopher Nolan's already stellar career, the stunning Dunkirk is his finest film. I highly recommend that you see Dunkirk in the theaters, and see it in 70MM if at all possible. Dunkirk is a staggering technical and cinematic achievement by Nolan and his crew and is not to be missed. It is also an inspiration for Brits and the rest of us to get through the dark age that is descending upon our world, so that we may live to see and fight another day. Go spend your hard earned money on Dunkirk, you will not be disappointed. 

©2017

Spider-Man : Homecoming - A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating : 2.35 out of 5 stars.

My Recommendation : SKIP IT IN THE THEATRE. SEE IT ON CABLE OR NETFLIX.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts, is the coming of age story of Peter Parker and his superhero alter-ego Spider-Man. The film stars Tom Holland as Spider-Man, with supporting nods from Michael Keaton, Marissa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first installment of the second re-boot of the third Spider-Man series of films. If that sounds confusing to you, you are not alone. The original cinematic Spiderman was Tobey Maguire who starred in three films produced by Sony from 2002, 2004 and 2007. Sony then re-booted the series in 2012, with Andrew Garfield as the new Spiderman and Emma Stone his love interest. Garfield lasted for two films, the second coming out in 2014, then he ran afoul of Sony's studio head and was summarily exiled from Spideydom. Now, just three years later, Spidey is back, this time with Disney/Marvel producing after the two mega-studios made a deal to bring Spider-Man back into the Marvel fold, adding one more branch to their gargantuan money tree. Tom Holland dons the signature blue and red tights this time for his first star turn in the Spider-Man franchise. Holland has played the character once before in a supporting role in Captain America : Civil War

I enjoyed the first two Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, they were solid, well-made movies with a distinct aesthetic and style and that I enjoyed. The third Maguire Spider-Man was an abomination that was so atrocious it stopped the franchise in its tracks. I admit I have never seen the Andrew Garfield Spidey films because at the time they seemed to be a gratuitous money-grab being that they were re-booting the franchise just five years after the last series ended. This time around they are re-booting after only three years, but it is a true re-boot where Spider-Man is absorbed into the Avenger's universe, so that somehow seems a bit less artistically bankrupt as the Garfield versions.

I am a fan of the Spider-Man character, so I had high expectations going to the theatre, but sadly I must report that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a very mixed bag of a movie. It isn't awful, but it certainly isn't great either. There are good elements and bad elements. In keeping with my optimistic nature…*please stop laughing*...I will get to the good points first. 

First off, Tom Holland does excellent work as Spider-Man. In this re-boot, Spider-Man is fourteen and fifteen years old, in other words he is a really annoying teenager. Holland does an exceedingly good job of capturing teenage angst and ennui, as well as the frustrations, social fragility and mental chaos that encompass adolescence. His voice even has a subtle crack to it that lets you know this is a boy thrust into a man's world. Holland seems to have a very bright future, and I hope he can use the monstrous success of this Spider-Man movie to spread his artistic wings and do more than carry water for the Disney money machine.

Holland is not the only bright spot in terms of acting. Michael Keaton plays the villain, Vulture, and he gives a terrific performance. There is an underlying menacing quality to Keaton in this film that he wears very well. It is great to see Keaton back in the game and crushing diverse, quality roles after his years of exile from the big stage. In some ways, Keaton's Vulture character is like his fictional alter ego in the movie Birdman, which can make for an ironically enjoyable perspective on his work in Spider-Man. 

Robert Downey Jr. reprises his iconic Iron Man role in the movie. Downey is the quintessential Iron Man. He is the perfect mix of charisma, charm and emotional fragility to bring a superhero to life on screen and he is uniquely qualified to never be overshadowed by all the pyrotechnics surrounding his performance. 

The film also does something very smart which a lot of television shows have started to do as well, namely, that they use music from earlier eras in order to conjure a sense of nostalgia in older audience members. Make no mistake about it, Spider-Man is a movie for teenagers, but the music in it is the music of the 70's and 80's, in other words the music from the teenage years of late baby boomers and generation X. Television shows like 13 Reasons Why and Stranger Things have used this musical technique to great effect in the last year. This is a brilliant device to bring older audiences into the story without alienating younger viewers. 

Another wise move by the filmmakers is that they do not try and do too much right out of the gate. Too many superhero films are unbalanced between superhero and villain, and superhero and task. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-man and Vulture are a pretty evenly matched, and Spider-man is not entrusted with having to save the world, just his little corner of it.

And now for the bad news…as I stated earlier, Tom Holland is fantastic at portraying a teenage boy, in fact he does too good a job. Spending two and half hours with a teenager is not something anyone in their right mind would want to actually do…hell, not even a teenager would want to spend that much time with a teenager. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, we are stuck with an annoying, whiny teenage idiot who makes the same moronic decisions most every teenager would make. Teenagers will relate to him, but adults will want to slap him silly for being so continuously stupid.

Another issue is that the portions of the story that deal with Peter Parker's high school life and friends are pretty unbearable. All of the teenage characters are painfully one-dimensional and are numbingly predictable and corny as hell. Peter Parker and friends are a drag on the entire film.

The story also suffers from a lack of clarity because the film makes large jumps in time and doesn't fill in the gaps properly in order to flesh out the characters and drama. For instance, the movie open with crews cleaning up in the wake of the destruction created by the Avengers in their New York City brawl with aliens in the first Avengers film. Then the movie jumps eight years ahead and we never get to see the critical moments in the development of Keaton's Vulture character, which to me would have been the most interesting part of the film, and we never got see it. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming also suffers from two things that afflict the Marvel films in general, namely that they are visually flat and stale, and also that they are thematically much too paltry and light-hearted. In terms of the visuals of the film, director Jon Watts, whose resume isn't exactly inspiring, is in way over his head. This movie is aesthetically more akin to a made for television movie than it is a cinematic enterprise. To be fair to Watts, Disney/Marvel run a very tight ship and are not interested in artistic vision, only franchise conformity and box-office returns.

As for the light-hearted nature that permeates all of the Marvel films, Spider-Man: Homecoming is definitely no exception. Like all of the Marvel movies, there is a tsunami of zippy one-liners and a flippancy that seeps out of its every pore. I understand that "entertainment' is the goal with these movies, but that doesn't mean they have to be so shallow and frivolous. Christopher Nolan proved with his Dark Knight trilogy that superhero movies can be entertaining and also artistically and archetypally illuminating at the same time. Even Sam Raimi with the original two Spider-Man films was able to pull that off, as was Ang Lee with his much maligned, Jungian inspired, Hulk. Just this year we have seen the superhero game elevated to a much higher level with James Mangold's superior Logan and Patty Jenkin's well-crafted Wonder Woman. Spider-Man fails to live up to the standards set by these quality films, but the truth is the same can be said of all of the Marvel films and Disney doesn't care as long as the money train keeps rolling. 

The final issue I had with Spider-Man: Homecoming was that the rules of the cinematic universe were never clearly defined. What I mean by that is that superhero movies are pretty incredible to begin with, so you have to have a set of rules for the film that the movie sticks to or else the story loses much needed credibility. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, for instance, Spider-Man is knocked out by bumping his head on a roof, but when he gets punched by a super-arm or is in a car crash, he comes out entirely unscathed. It is a little thing, but sometimes the little things add up to a big thing. 

There was one thing that was both good and bad about the film. There is a B-story sub-text about class in the film that is pretty fascinating, which is the good thing, the bad thing is it is so minor as to be quickly forgotten. Spider-man is a local, working class hero, or as Iron Man tells him, he has a whole "Springsteen vibe" going on. I think if the film had fleshed out this idea it would have been a very rich topic to explore. Keaton's Vulture is the same as Spider-man, a blue collar local guy, whereas Iron Man and the Avengers are a globalist bunch of elitists trying to impose their values on the locals. Politically, this is a potent narrative that we have seen play out across the globe and even in our last election. A superhero movie can sometimes be the best place to hash out archetypal and mythic conflicts so that viewers can find nuance, or clarity, whichever they most need. Sadly, Spider-Man: Homecoming spent more time with adolescent pursuits and mostly turned a blind eye to the class struggle that was taking place at the heart of the story, and the film is lesser for it. 

The bottom line is this, Spider - Man: Homecoming is just…ok. It is an admittedly fun but basically mindless movie that will no doubt entertain millions and make billions. If you are a superhero fan you will see the film regardless of what I say, but if you are lukewarm on these types of films, I think you can skip it in the theatre and see it when it's on cable of Netflix. 

In conclusion I will share this, that over the years many readers have emailed me to tell me that they think I am a vicious misogynist, racist and xenophobe, and with my tepid review of Spider-Man: Homecoming, they will no doubt add "incorrigible arachnophobe" to the list of evils that afflict me. I will simply say this in my defense…I am not an arachnophobe (some of my best friends are spiders!!), I am just a cinephile who yearns for a bit more from the standard summertime popcorn movies that Hollywood continuously uses to separate fools like me from their hard earned money. My spidey-senses are telling me I'm going to need to lower my standards. 

©2017

Dr. Strange : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating : 2 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation : Skip it in the theatre. See it on Cable or Netflix. If you are a superhero lover, you'll see the film anyway, so my recommendation is meaningless.

Dr. Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, is the story of a genius, hot shot neuro-surgeon who falls on hard times after an accident and searches the world for a way to heal himself. Through a fortuitous path, the good Doctor finds himself in Kathmandu studying the mystical arts and being thrown into the esoteric world of superheroes, magic and multi-dimensions. 

Dr. Strange is the fourteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is the one inhabited by Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Spider-man and The Avengers to name but a few. The film is directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson. It boasts an impressive cast of supporting actors including Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Stuhlberg.

I admittedly knew very little about the comic book character Dr. Strange before seeing the film. Marvel, and their parent company Disney, are well aware that Dr. Strange is a second level type of superhero. He isn't on par with his more famous compatriots like Spider-man, Hulk, Captain America or Iron Man. So the studio wisely uses this film to roll out not only a "new" property in their cinematic universe, but in doing so they also prepare the audience for multiple and changing versions of the cinematic universe they have already created. What I mean by that is Dr. Strange is not just a superhero, he is a mystical hero, who is part of a group that can cross over into other dimensions, mess with time, and generally warp all that we think we know for sure. It is a very savvy move for Marvel/Disney to roll Dr. Strange out now as it allows them to have a new money-making franchise and also gives them the flexibility to change and alter the current direction of Marvel films by giving themselves the ability to "change universes" through Dr. Strange's multi-dimensional time-line jumping. So they can make a film where Captain America is evil or the Hulk kills Spider-man, and then have Dr. Strange come along and either turn back time or jump to another universe in the multi-verse…pretty savvy.

Disney is on fire right now in terms of the moves they have made in recent years. In 2010 the studio bought Marvel comics and their cavalcade of superheroes, the only notable exception being the X-Men who are stuck over at the creative hell known as Fox. The purchasing price was $4 billion which, sadly, was just out of my price range. That is a lot of money for any studio to invest, but the move has already paid for itself with multiple successful franchise films and spinoffs in the time since the purchase. Disney has pumped out twelve Marvel based films in the last six years, with many more to come. These twelve films have made in excess of $9 billion. Add to that the shrewd move to purchase the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas for another $4 billion, which has already paid off handsomely as the first Star Wars film they made, The Force Awakens, made $2 billion worldwide last year. And that evil mastermind Mickey Mouse plans to release new Star Wars films every year for the next few years ensuring another huge payday for the studio. In other words, Disney earnings are going to be very healthy for the foreseeable future.

So why am I talking all this inside baseball about movie studios and franchises and box office? Well, Dr. Strange is both an example of why that strategy by the studio is good for business and simultaneously bad for movies. Dr. Strange is not a terrible movie comparatively speaking, not at all, but it also isn't a great one. But it could have been a hell of a lot better than it was in the hands of a more daring and confident director. But daring and confident directors are not going to get a chance to mess with the Mickey Mouse Marvel Money Machine. Instead the Marvel films are all going to be formulaic, rather predictable, self-consciously cutesy, and cinematically somewhat lacking, just like Dr. Strange

On the other hand, if a powerhouse like Disney didn't own the rights to Dr. Strange, and they hadn't been so successful with the other Marvel franchise films, this character would never see the light of day, and Dr. Strange is a truly great character worthy of a film. The great disappointment is that the film Dr. Strange never lives up to the compelling intrigue that its main character brings to the show.

Like many Marvel films, Dr. Strange is two-thirds of a good-enough movie, but loses its way in the final third of the film. And like most of the Marvel films, Dr. Strange lacks an exceptional villain that can compete with its main character. Yes, there are villains in the movie, one played by one of my favorite actors, Mads Mikkelson, but that character is never fully fleshed out or given much to do in a rather shallow script. The other villain is an enormous evil entity that is visually unremarkable in every way, thus undercutting the power he may possess for viewers.

The first two thirds of the film are pretty interesting because the character of Dr, Strange is a fascinating one, and also because Benedict Cumberbatch is an actor with an imperative charm to him. Cumberbatch has a weird magnetism to him that draws viewers in to his private world even as he keeps them an arms length away. Cumberbatch's work in Dr. Strange is all the more impressive because it is a star turn that requires great charisma and appeal to be able to pull off, and I didn't think he had the goods to be able to do it, but he does. 

The rest of the cast do fine enough work in underwritten and underwhelming roles. Chiwetel Ojiofor is a terrific actor but is terribly under used as Karl Mordo. Tilda Swinton does a good job as The Ancient One. Swinton is always an interesting actress and her solid work here is a tribute to her talent as it is much more complex and nuanced a performance than the script gives to her. The rest of the cast, Mikkelson as Kaecillius, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer and Michael Stuhlberg as Nicodemus West all do the best they can with the very little they are given.

Visually the film has some interesting sequences where we get to see the multi-verse and things of that nature, but all in all it is a rather stale bit of filmmaking. There are sequences that are reminiscent of Christopher Nolan's film Inception, which do Dr. Strange no favors because Scott Derrickson is certainly no Christopher Nolan, not in any way.

All that said, I did enjoy the film even though in total it is pretty sub-par. I think the reason I enjoyed it was that the character is so interesting, and that Cumberbatch does such a good job bringing him to life. I think another reason I enjoyed it was that I had very low expectations and was glad to just sit and turn off my brain after all the hullaballoo about the election. I have been very critical of the Marvel films of the past as they struck me as just the worst sort of mindless noise meant to separate idiots from their money…idiots like me. I think what has happened to me is that having sat through so many Marvel films, my brain has been softened to mush and I am now more pliable to the wishes of the evil wizard Mouse pulling all the strings back at Disney headquarters. Whatever the reason, I "enjoyed" Dr. Strange on a certain level, and while I wouldn't watch the film again, I will go out and read some of the comic books to learn more about the character. So that in and of itself says something positive about the film.

In conclusion, if you love super hero movies, you will see this film no matter what I say. If you are lukewarm on super hero films, you can skip this one and maybe catch it on cable or Netflix for free and at your leisure. I found Dr. Strange to be a fascinating character in a rather tepid film. I think you will feel the same way, which is why I recommend you skip seeing it in the theatre, and go read some Dr. Strange comics instead.

©2016

X-Men : Apocalypse - A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THERE ARE ZERO SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW!!!****

RATING: 1.42 STARS OUT OF 5 STARS

RECOMMENDATION : SKIP IT. THERE IS REALLY NO REASON TO SEE THIS FILM UNLESS YOU ARE AN ABSOLUTE COMIC BOOK AND X-MEN FANATIC WITH A LOT OF TIME TO KILL.

ESTIMATED READING TIME : 5 MINUTES 4 SECONDS

I did it, I went and saw ANOTHER super hero movie. Last summer I was unable to go to the movies during blockbuster season, so I am making up for lost time by giving as much money as possible to those fine people at the movie studios for all of the selflessly great work that they do (God Bless Them!!!). I feel, deep down, that if I didn't make multiple pilgrimages to the theatre this summer and missed a second straight blockbuster season, I would be a bad American…and frankly…the terrorists just might win, and I simply cannot let that happen.

Before I begin my review in earnest I must make a Full Disclosure: during my teen years I attended and graduated from Charles Francis Xavier's (Professor X) "School for Gifted Youngsters" in upstate New York. I have struggled for years to say this but...I am officially a mutant. My mutation gives me two super powers, a Level 5 Contrarianism and the ability to smell bullshit from over a mile away. Granted these powers aren't exactly invisibility and flight but you take what you can get and do the best you can with what you've got..at least that's what they taught me at "XSGY" (Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters) or "X School" as we alumni call it. I cherished my time at X School, where I excelled on the J.V. quidditch team and was voted "least likely to succeed" in the yearbook.

With all of that off my chest, let's get to the film X-Men: Apocalypse. The film is the ninth installment in the X-Men franchise and is the fourth X-Men film directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse). The film stars a cavalcade of top notch young actors, including Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, James McAvoy, and Oscar Isaac, to name but a few. 

The X-Men comic book mythology is nothing short of brilliant. Mutants are a fantastic metaphor for various modern issues, civil rights and gay rights to name but two, and are symbolic of archetypes both new and old. The X-Men source material is genius, the problem though is that the X-Men movies have never failed to be anything other than pedestrian even at their zenith. I have never left an X-Men film without feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. It is too bad because it would be a glorious thing to have a truly great director, like a Christopher Nolan for example, take the complex and nuanced X-Men foundational material and do something really great with it, like he did with the Dark Knight trilogy. But instead we are stuck with Bryan Singer, a hack personified, driving these films into a ditch for over a decade now. And so it is with the latest installment, X-Men: Apocalypse.

The main problem with the film is that it lacks any dramatic cohesion and tension and is therefore rendered remarkably dull. That lack of dramatic cohesion and tension falls squarely on Mr. Singer, as does the films uninspired and flat visual style. The film feels shallow and rushed and frankly, devoid of any purpose. I should clarify that comment, the film is devoid of any artistic and creative purpose, but it has plenty of corporate purpose, not the least of which is Fox's contractual obligation to make X-Men films in a timely manner or lose the rights to the characters. Oh…and there is always the desire to fleece idiots like myself who will give our hard earned dollars to go see anything with super men and women in tights kicking bad guy ass. 

There is nothing original or even remotely interesting in X-Men: Apocalypse, only the same old tired tropes and cliches, which is not shocking considering it is the ninth cinematic go around for the X gang. I mean, the Fox cinematic X-Men horse has not only been beaten to death, but drawn and quartered and then beaten further into dust. 

From the very beginning the X-Men films have boasted very serious and quality actors, such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and Halle Berry, who did the best they can with the little they were given, and so it is with the actors in this latest film. Michael Fassbender's Magneto is such a rich and fascinating character that he could easily carry a film about himself alone, but I would want that film to be directed by someone with a command of the craft of filmmaking…in other words, not Bryan Singer. Fassbender salvages what he can from the scraps of a script he is given, as does the always luminous Jennifer Lawrence and the solid and steady James McAvoy. Other actors don't fare quite as well. Oscar Isaac plays Apocalypse, and is given nothing of substance to work with at all. His costume and make-up are atrocious and undermine any sort of sense of power and menace the character might have been able to generate, and Isaac is left looking embarrassingly ridiculous. Olivia Munn, who has proven herself to be a very capable actress in other projects (HBO's The Newsroom for example), looks completely lost and terribly uncomfortable her entire time on screen. Her discomfort is palpable and distracting, and while Ms. Munn isn't entirely blameless for her poor performance, a good portion of the blame for her struggles falls once again on the ineptitude of Bryan Singer.

I enjoyed the last two X-Men films, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, they weren't great films or even very good films but they were at least clever and interesting. In both of those films the storyline jumped back in time and the films became period pieces. First Class was set from World War II up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Days of Future Past was set in the early seventies. Adding the element of time period to the films gave them a bit of a boost in terms of interesting material, costume and the intrigue of history. X-Men: Apocalypse tries to do the same thing by setting the time period in the eighties and it simply doesn't work. The third time around is not the charm in regards to time period, as this time it feels stale, forced and creatively bankrupt.

The time period element is a symptom of the greater disease afflicting the X-Men franchise, that disease is artistic insolvency. The creative team behind the X-Men franchise are simply destitute in regards to good ideas, and due to sub-par directing from the likes of Mr. Singer, they were never even able to make the most of the pittance of good ideas they had in the first place. This franchise is in dire need of new artistic blood. They brought in new acting blood, McAvoy for Stewart, Fassbender for McKellen etc, in the X-Men: First Class film and have rode that horse as far as it will take them. The new blood needed is not in front of the camera, but behind it. A new director, a whole new creative team, from writers on down through to cinematography, costume and set design are desperately needed to salvage the X-Men franchise and give the X-Men mythology the cinematic glory it so richly deserves. I doubt that will happen though, as Fox has made it clear that in regards to the X-Men franchise, quantity will always top quality.

In conclusion, X-Men: Apocalypse is another in a long line of missed opportunities in the X-Men film series. If you are a huge comic book and X-Men fan, you will have probably already seen and already been disappointed by the film. But if you are even a slightly below a fanatical level consumer of comic book films and the X-Men, then skip this film. You will never have any need to see it in the theatre or on cable/Netflix. Now I think I can take a little rest from the theatre as my cinematic comic book calendar appears to be free until Suicide Squad comes out in August. I'll spend this long, hot summer honing my Level 5 Contrarianism and bullshit smelling powers for the fall, when I'll really need them, as it will be election time!!

©2016