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Franchise Friday, Vol. 2: Indiana Jones

Simultaneously bold, disarmingly handsome and well-intentioned if arguably foolish in his pursuit of the world’s rarest artifacts, Dr. Indiana Jones can easily be considered one of the more likable everyman-esque central protagonists to have ever been conceived. In fact, it’s Indy’s relatable vulnerability that transforms him from untouchable hero archetype into someone that easily garners sympathy from viewers. From a profoundly overblown fear of snakes to bits of general rough-and-tumble fallibility, Indy himself is as much a joy to travel with as his treacherous exploits are to witness from start to finish.

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July 2

My (Fashionably Late) July ’14 in Review

Having just relocated (back) to Pennsylvania, my life has been in quite the state of disarray as I’ve scrambled – panicked and uncertain – to pick up the pieces and start anew. Thanks to surefire employment falling through and the subsequent scouring of other avenues, the entire experience hasn’t been one I’d recommend enduring. Even still, last month yielded satisfactory and then some viewing experiences across many a decade and genre. Snowpiercer, as the infographic below denotes, safely garnered the top spot among other worthwhile title contenders and, if you haven’t already, seeing it would definitely be in your best interest.

July

Other first-time viewings (in alphabetical order):

Akira (Otomo, ’88)
Clockers (Lee, ’05)
Factotum (Hamer, ’05)
Hercules (Ratner, ’14)
King of New York (Ferrara, ’90)
Out of the Furnace (Cooper, ’13)
The Purge (DeMonaco, ’13)
Starred Up (Mackenzie, ’14)
Vanilla Sky (Crowe, ’01)

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Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)

As it concisely thrives amid the potentially fatigue-inducing bulk of Marvel’s Phase Two initiative, Guardians of the Galaxy is an easily appreciated departure from the likes of what we’ve acclimated ourselves with for the better part of a decade. Focusing on the titular troupe of ne’er-do-wells, Guardians addresses an intergalactic threat perpetuated by the invaluable Infinity Stone – one of six artifacts that bestows the power to destroy worlds upon whoever is strong enough to harness it. Fervently sought after by Kree warlord Ronan (Lee Pace), it’s up to one Peter Quill, a.k.a. “Star-Lord” (Chris Pratt) and his ragtag group of combat-ready misfits to save the planet Xandar from nigh-inevitable annihilation.

First and foremost, it’s easiest to compliment Guardians‘ penchant for effortless engagement despite our unfamiliarity with the source material. Whilst obviously popular among the typical comic book enthusiast, the series’ translation from book to screen finds solace in writer/director Gunn’s always apt sense of humor and narrative steadfastness. It cuts right through the bullshit, introduces us to the expanded universe in which this motley crew resides and gets down to brass tacks without a moment’s hesitation. Given the immensity of the term “galaxy,” such an accomplishment inherently teeters on the brink of a typical fuck-up, however the script does a wonderful job in covering all of its character-centric and situational bases as its vision trumps obvious archetypal familiarity.

Barring Mr. Quill and the gang’s obvious motivations and behavioral erraticism, these characters are still basally unique enough to care about and root for based on principal. Overarching conflict involving an all-powerful, power-hungry asshole hellbent on destroying something beautiful? Absolutely forgivable if only because of how deftly events and key players are introduced and fleshed out as unconvolutedly as possible. Sure, the “Friends forever!” aspect of the core group’s eventually-established bond is a bit hokey but, all in all, the film’s sheer uniqueness of personality and periodically bombast-heavy vision do wonders to blow past its shortcomings.

As you’ve also most likely concluded, Guardians of the Galaxy is simply a delight based on how effortlessly it trumps its cohorts’ confined narrative hindrances. While Cap and the gang are inherently S.H.I.E.L.D.-heavy endeavors filled with one recurring character and plot point after another, James Gunn’s assured illustration of this alternate but soon-to-be-integrated sect of the Marvel universe does wonders for filmgoers of all types. It’s accessible, engaging, humorous as such and a prime example of what blockbuster entertainment in the era of superheroes should strive to be.

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Ani-Monday: Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)

Another new feature! Before I do a cartwheel and flip a top hat onto my head for presentational purposes, let it be known that I’ve always been a fan of the animated medium. From Disney to Anime, animated films carry with them an alternately diverse and unified set of cinematic ideals – ones that vary in terms of all-ages engagement and singular artistic vision. They’re things meant to be timeless despite an age benchmarked by Pixar-elevated technical proficiency, and I mean to explore both the former and the latter in an ongoing effort to touch all of my bases here on this blog. Enjoy!

Once thought to be gratuitous in the presentation of its iconic imagery, Akira holds up in terms of narrative but assuredly won’t phase a mostly desensitized present-day audience. Set in the marginally dystopian Neo-Tokyo circa 2022, civil unrest following the Third World War is commonplace to the point of frequent police and military intervention. Concerned more with hooliganism than tending to their vocational studies, long-time pals Kaneda and Tetsuo maintain their roles as master and misfit respectively in a local biker gang amid this chaos, frequently challenging and combating others in true Mad Max fashion. Following a fateful run-in with a mysterious young boy on the lam from authorities, the overshadowed and temperamental Tetsuo undergoes a series of traumatic transformative changes that shed light on what he’s become, what will become of him and the truth behind Neo-Tokyo’s psychic-obsessed subclass.

Whew! As I reel from how convoluted that admittedly sounds, Akira still maintains a sense of artistic integrity that’s easy to appreciate on the basis of its source inspirations. For those not entirely familiar with Manga and the frequent translation of its ranks from print to screen, the sheer level of unprecedented creativity present throughout some of these titles is often mind-blowing. Based on writer/director Otomo’s own graphic novel, this particular film is as conceptually lofty and fleshed-out as it needs to be to tell the story at its core, even if it doesn’t quite tie up all of the loose ends presented by its high-concept aims.

This aside, Otomo covers all of his bases in presenting his agreeably innovative vision. From an excellently-realized futuristic aesthetic to just the right amount of humanism involving Kaneda and Tetsuo, all of the explanatory exposition involving the Japanese government and the title character pale in comparison to the film’s climax. Despite the convolution stemming from the origination and subsequent study of the close-knit psionic community, Akira provides us with a lot of general excitement that’s hard to ignore as it becomes all-encompassing throughout its latter two-thirds.

Although not perfect due to the obvious shortcomings I’ve touched upon, Akira‘s icon status is well-deserved on the basis of its creator’s lovingly crafted universe. It overcomes a mostly non-dynamic cast of characters and semi-convoluted exposition with a wholly unique art style, involving conflict and sheer unpredictability. All things considered, Akira is an arguably seminal piece of work that predated anything comparably mature in terms of content.

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Hercules (Brett Ratner, 2014)

I’m no stranger to scathingly abhorring films that earn said wrath, especially in this day and age. Despite this truth, I still recognize the efforts to which certain productions go to target and enthrall a particular demographic, i.e. this year’s 300: Rise of an Empire. In the case of Brett Ratner’s staggeringly inept Hercules, nearly every mythology-infused nuance is so embarrassingly slight that entertainment is forced to take a backseat to eye-rolling.

For the uninformed, the atrocity in question attempts to tackle the man behind the myth as it presents a narrative steeped in Hercules’ involvement in the Thracian Wars. Tasked with training an ailing populace in eradicating one Rheseus’ army, the fabled demigod (Dwayne Johnson) and his skilled squad of mercenaries do just that. Prompting the now-captive Rheseus to unveil the true reasoning behind his and his army’s aggression, Hercules must set things straight as he continues to wrestle with false accusations pertaining to his family’s murder.

Although Hercules earns but one measly point for treading where others usually do, it’s truly awful to witness its unrelenting one-dimensionality play out from moment to moment. For starters, not a single key player is worth caring about nor sequence weighty enough to feel consequential. Everything presented – factional motives, flaccid humor and a rote, period-specific aesthetic – is just so disappointingly cookie-cutter that unsolicited laughter is inevitable, not to mention the implausibly uninhibited finesse with which Hercules and the gang dispatches literally hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of the oppositional masses.

While my critique is noticeably lacking in specifics, let it be known that nothing Hercules puts forth is unique enough to pique one’s interest. From the moment he’s propositioned, there’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that he’ll fail, therefore the only attribute left to engage is scale and corresponding action-heavy grandiosity, of which pales in comparison to dozens of similarly testosterone-infused, moreover palpably stylish efforts. Paired with a disgracefully hasty jab at humanizing the tortured man via the loss of his family, Hercules is nothing but a failed attempt to capitalize on an agreeably popular sect of Greek mythology as it exploits the physical presence of a musclebound lead.

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TBT: Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992)

A remarkably astute stage-to-screen adaptation, David Mamet’s self-adapted collaboration with director James Foley is a quintessential ’90s gem if only because of its performance-driven charisma. Set in and around a real estate agency that specializes in resort properties, the agents themselves are pitted against one another for the sake of securing their jobs and very livelihood. Intent on obtaining the titular Glengarry leads that promise imminent profitability, the individuals in question go to increasingly desperate and seedy lengths to one-up their competition.

Barring abortion-esque, cash-grabbing contemporary musicals, there’s something to be said about how competently translated some plays truly are. In the case of Glengarry Glen Ross, the film consciously compensates for its limited spacing in terms of setting via whip-smart and engaging dialogue. It’s crass, sure, however the vulgarity is assuredly warranted in the face of each man’s impending fate as a career professional. Functioning as personality-driven light switches, the key players – despite their obvious sole impetus – are unique and unpredictable enough to push past conflictual banality.

Having mentioned what I already have, there really isn’t much else to laud the film in question for. It’s appealingly steadfast by nature, involving as such and a longstanding model of the pitch-perfect stage-to-screen adaptation, however the proceedings aren’t particularly thick with substance. Unavoidable simplicity aside, Glengarry Glen Ross is a worthwhile piece of well-acted entertainment that thrives thanks to its character-driven and palpably attitudinal atmosphere.

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Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2014)

Despite conceptual simplicity, Snowpiercer is far and away one of the most effortlessly captivating sci-fi yarns in recent memory. Seventeen years after a global warming-induced apocalypse, humanity’s lone survivors are situated aboard the titular locomotive, forever circling the globe if only to live out the remainder of their predetermined existences. Given a particularly oppressive caste arrangement, one Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) and a bulk of his caboose-residing, lower-class cohorts take it upon themselves to initiate a revolt if only to violently achieve equality. Throwing the Snowpiercer into a state of uncertain disarray, Curtis and the gang steadfastly circumvent car after car in pursuit of the infamously unattainable goal.

As I embarrassingly admit my failure in familiarizing myself with Bong’s preceding works, Snowpiercer‘s abundant and palpable technical proclivity very much brand him as an assured master of his craft. Initially slow-going, the film consistently breezes past typical dystopian tropes via its sheer uniqueness of presentation and vision, the tail-riding populace’s familiarly grime-covered facade taking a backseat to general engagement. Once the proceedings chug past bare-boned, synopsis-heavy exposition, it becomes startlingly clear that nothing’s sacred in the wake of the tail-end’s actions; something that’s rather suitable given the gravity of revolting against the literal remainder of the human race.

Amid all of the appropriate grimness, Snowpiercer confidently flaunts awkwardly effective comedic tendencies. Juvenile as it may be, things like a cartoon-sized hammer landing smack in the middle of a group of bloodied and grappling tenants strike the right chord, as does cheeky dialogue, a pregnant, gun-toting schoolteacher and a caricature-esque Tilda Swinton functioning at full throttle. Humor aside, the film’s fully and fascinatingly realized aura balance everything near-perfectly, including but certainly not limited to the fantastical steampunk aesthetic complimenting the strikingly unique personalities of each and every car.

All things considered, let it be known the film in question is one of this year’s few consistently impressive efforts. Although others have rivaled its excellence, for Snowpiercer‘s genre-specific trappings to overcome rote archetypal exposition as confidently as it does is remarkable. Its assured, breathtaking aesthetic, tangible humanistic tendencies, technical proficiency and corresponding presentation are truly felt from start to finish, and to come across something in this vein that’s this multifaceted – in 2014 especially – is the polar opposite of a dime a dozen.

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TBT: The Immigrant (James Gray, 2014)

While not typical Throwback Thursday fare because of it’s recent and still-expanding theatrical release, I still felt compelled to convey my thoughts on James Gray’s latest and near-career best effort. Enjoy!

James Gray is not your average American auteur. Like I stated somewhat recently in my review of The Yards, the man’s films explore human nature in a decidedly complex light, what with central characters often playing a dual morality card as illustrated through differing narratives. In the case of The Immigrant, we’re offered an earnest prohibition-era tale of female Polish hopeful Ewa (Marion Cotillard) as she and her sister Magda arrive on Ellis Island, the latter of whom does so in a noticeably poor state. Forced apart due to unavoidable circumstances, Ewa soon avoids impending deportation thanks to the enigmatic Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) – a volatile individual that provides her with a means of supporting her ailing sister if only by way of prostitution.

Although its first act noticeably employs stilted era-afflicted narrative and performances, The Immigrant more than saves face once its able to delve deep into the central characters’ moral compasses. Simultaneously illustrative of Ewa’s circumstantial misfortune and her aspiring suitors’ mutual interest in her, the film takes pride in its humanist spin on an obviously bleak historical timeline. Beyond what drives Phoenix’s Bruno and Renner’s Orlando’s respective professional ups and downs, we’re offered valuable insight into their relationship and how their falling out adds (dramatically) to Ewa’s ever-present struggle.

The ensuing conflict is what propels the film past historical familiarity, what with Gray and co-scribe Minello’s creative nuances steering clear of stock key player tropes. Despite The Immigrant‘s initially decided branding of Bruno as its antagonist and Orlando’s obvious foil, it becomes clear that these gentlemanly books aren’t meant to be judged by their covers. Like most people, these men possess discernibly muddy track records that paint them as imperfect individuals. While they’ve both made mistakes, it’s still entirely possible that either one’s possession of Ewa’s sentiments wouldn’t be in her best interest and, because of this, The Immigrant soars above the typical insipid period piece.

Barring the safely-played first-act portrayal of Ewa’s plight, James Gray’s latest thrives on its subsequent humanist excellence. The proceedings become as much about the titular transplant’s struggle as they do the people she meets and, coupled with an excellent era-specific aesthetic, it’s this distinction that effortlessly solicits engagement. Even if you’re not entirely familiar with Gray’s palpably personal style of filmmaking, The Immigrant is both well-made and unique enough in scope to outlast the qualms some may have with similar subject matter.