It feels strange to review The Mandalorian at this point in time. The next big chapter of Star Wars — an in-between-quel bridging Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Force Awakens (2015) — has technically begun, but it’s unavailable to 95% of the world. Then again, I’m sure fans outside the U.S. won’t have trouble dusting off their digital eye-patches; the other option is waiting until Disney+ arrives locally, anywhere between next week and 2021 depending on where you live.
The Mandalorian, like all Star Wars under Disney, trades on nostalgia. I imagine anyone allured by a helmet evoking Boba Fett already knows he isn’t part of the series, so the imagery alone appears to be a selling-point. In its brief forty-minute premiere (directed by Dave Fliloni of The Clone Wars fame), the show introduces us to a “Mandalorian,” a phrase that holds little meaning to those not already immersed in Star Wars books and comics. This nameless, faceless bounty hunter is meant to be the story’s emotional core. Pedro Pascal plays him with reserve (as he ought to; this Mandalorian keeps to himself), but what we learn about him comes from what little body language he’s allowed to express. A Mandalorian, as the show goes on to reveal, never removes his mask.
Spoilers for the first episode begin here.
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Gemini Man, in which Will Smith comes face to face with a de-aged clone of himself, was made from a ’90s script originally meant for Tony Scott. At some point, it was saddled with mid-2000s military politics and anxieties — a la the Bourne films — until eventually, Ang Lee got his hands on it, turning it into a futuristic visual experiment. Like Lee’s previous film, the contained war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), Gemini Man was shot at 120 frames per second, and was projected as such on the handful of screens that could accommodate it.
Unfortunately, not a single screen could show the film exactly as Lee had intended — at 120fps, in 3D, and at a 4K resolution — which is a shame, given that Lee is one of the most visually interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood. But does his use of “HFR” (High Frame Rate) actually work? Well, not exactly. I’m not sure a narrative film shot at 120fps can work, barring very specific circumstances. However, the conversation about Lee’s use of technology, and the kinds of stories he applies them to, is worth having.
First, a brief primer: What does 120fps mean?
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The New York Film Festival has always played host to a multitude of perspectives, from its globe-spanning Main Slate, to its experimental Projections programme, to the more recent, virtual reality-centric Convergence. The 57th iteration of city’s premiere film event unfolded across two weeks at Lincoln Center, with this year’s proceedings dedicated to the late Agnès Varda, an NYFF mainstay (her final film, Varda by Agnès, was also featured).
The crown jewel of the fest was undoubtedly its Opening Night selection, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. The ludicrously expensive Netflix production was so in-demand that even its press screening had to be moved from the usual location — the 268-seat Walter Reade Theatre — to Lincoln Center’s prestigious, 1086-capacity Alice Tully Hall. Netflix also held the New York premiere for Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (this year’s Centerpiece film) and Warner Bros.’ Joker even made its final festival stop after Venice and TIFF. However, lesser-known, unconventional works also found their way into the spotlight, like Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s sexually-charged Liberté and Minh Quý Truong’s experimental Vietnamese sci-fi doc The Treehouse.
As usual, the programmers — among them, retiring festival director Kent Jones — scoured every corner of the globe for unique points of view, and the results were astounding. Here are five films from around the world that exemplify the best of NYFF 2019. Read More »
Science fiction elucidates, though it rarely does so with such precision. Minh Quý Truong’s Nhà Cây (The Treehouse) began as a documentary on indigenous tribes, but it morphed toward abstraction during its lengthy edit. What Truong wanted to say with his film — about the ways in which we remember, and about the ethics and brutality of the moving image — could not be contained within the literal, or within the traditionally cinematic. So, he chose a new narrative framework: human colonies on Mars in the year 2045.
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It’s difficult to talk about Slave Play without giving away its conceit — in fact, it’s damn near impossible. If watching the show unsullied is something you prefer, then know this much: at the beginning, it’s about three sexual encounters steeped in a racial power play in the antebellum south. At the end, it’s…well, it’s still about that, in a way, and you may find yourself needing a stiff drink afterwards.
Written by Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Robert O’Hara, the show hits Broadway on October 6, 2019. It’s charged — sexually, politically, racially — and it gets to the heart of some deeply uncomfortable facets of trauma in different forms. It is not, however, a neatly packaged instructional on how to navigate these issues; in fact, it feels antithetical to “the discourse” we’ve grown used to. It lacks a linear solution, or set of solutions, to what may elsewhere be presented as an immediately solvable problem (or even an immediately identifiable one). To talk about how or why is to talk about its true nature, which, if you’re spoiler-cautious, the show reveals a mere thirty minutes in after frequently tipping its hand. It isn’t a reveal for the characters, but rather a mechanism by which to situate and re-locate the audience’s discomfort.
And it is discomforting. It needs to be, because it does what so few modern stories about American slavery ever manage to: it treats slavery as a thing of the present. Warning: spoilers ahead. Read More »
(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this epilogue, we explore how Spider-Man: Far From Home continues the MCU following the events of Endgame.)
This post contains major spoilers for Spider-Man: Far From Home.
In the first few breezy minutes of Marvel’s latest entry, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his classmates deal, at least nominally, with the effects of “The Blip” — a more palatable term than “The Decimation” — which saw half the world return from dust after a five-year interval. As luck would have it, the main cast from Spider-Man: Homecoming remains largely intact, since they were all wiped away. Now joined by new addition Brad (Remy Hii), a teenage hunk who was only a skinny tween when Parker last saw him, the kids all take a trip to Europe and mayhem ensues. Though besides Brad’s presence, only a brief mention of Queens’ homelessness problem and a tongue-in-cheek ‘In Memoriam’ slideshow make Spider-Man: Far From Home feel like it exists in the aftermath of an apocalyptic time-slip.
The trauma of dying during “The Blip” was handwaved in Avengers: Endgame — Parker, upon his resurrection, assumes he “must have passed out” — and why harp on the macabre here, in a teen comedy, anyway? Although, while Far From Home takes a wry approach to global catastrophe, it also rightly condenses the associated grief by grounding it in a single relationship: that of Peter Parker and his Uncle Ben in this series, the late Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).
Though in making Stark a centerpiece once more, the Marvel series arrives at a vital crossroads: how will these films memorialize their own legacy?
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part two of our look at Avengers: Endgame: where the film drops the ball, and where it soars)
[Read part one of our Avengers: Endgame piece here.]
Of the lingering questions posed by Avengers: Infinity War, how the Avengers would go about gathering the Infinity Stones was paramount. For the most part, Avengers: Endgame’s answers are fun and cathartic — Steve Rogers fights his former self, while Thor and Tony Stark get closure with their parents — though one Stone in particular was destined to be dilemmatic. The last time around, Thanos sacrificed his own daughter Gamora to attain the Soul Stone (“A soul for a soul,” as the Red Skull put it) in a film where the villain won through trading lives, but the heroes failed despite their numerous attempts to do so.
The superhero trolley problem has reared its head throughout the series, most notably in Avengers: Age of Ultron (“Would you kill millions to save billions?”) though earlier entries like Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and even Doctor Strange hinged on heroes choosing the greater good over their individual lives. Sometimes, they did so in opposition to the villains’ un-feeling utilitarianism, which sought to place an objective (and limited) value on human life, culminating in Thanos wiping out half the universe so the other half could thrive.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part 1 of our look at Avengers: Endgame: how the film sets up its breathtaking finale.)
It’s never too late for course-correction.
As Marvel has steamrolled its way through popular culture, its failings seem to matter less and less. For every middling entry like Thor: The Dark World, there’s a riotous follow-up like Thor: Ragnarok, which lampshades its series’ tropes, remixes its themes and kills-off existing characters it doesn’t know what to do with, effectively removing the former from canon. To borrow the parlance of sister-franchise Star Wars, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” Though, what Star Wars: The Last Jedi understood about this approach (spoken and acted upon by the villain Kylo Ren) was, ironically, something Ragnarok understood as well, despite sweeping its predecessor under the rug: that failure undealt with can come back to haunt you, and that real growth and catharsis means learning from the past before moving on.
Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame begin here.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In Part 2 of Captain Marvel: forgotten stakes, and the narrative fallout of blatant propaganda.)
[Read part one of our Captain Marvel piece here.]
Marvel movies tend to be littered with in-jokes. Cameos, sequel setups and obscure comic trivia reward the loyalty of certain audiences, and while Captain Marvel speaks this not-so-secret dialect (in addition to an avalanche of ’90s references), it’s also fluent in winking allusions to the U.S. military. For instance, the Kree designation for Earth is C-53, after the World War II fighter plane. The film even combines the worlds of comic book and military Easter eggs; the Avengers are retroactively named after an Air Force callsign, as if to conflate the function of these fictional and real-world entities.
In recent Marvel films like Black Panther, whose ruthless villain was dubbed “Killmonger” by his black ops peers, U.S. militarism was finally framed in a questionable light, albeit with caveats. After military-funded entries like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it seemed, for a moment, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had left its propaganda behind. However, the studio took a considerable step back with the production of Captain Marvel.
What little goodwill Marvel earned on this front seems to have been squandered. Like so much of the MCU, Captain Marvel is nominally critical of war, yet implicitly supports it in a western context. The film is practically a recruitment dog-whistle and its story suffers in the process.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part one of our two-part look at Captain Marvel: how the movie tries, and fails, to frame memory and perspective.)
Between the two halves of its massive finale — the apocalyptic Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame — the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like it’s being stripped for parts.
Ant-Man and the Wasp, a smaller, more intimate entry, did away with the trappings of the Marvel formula, though it failed to supply a working substitute. Its leads no longer provided quip-laden momentum (a task that fell to supporting players independent of the plot), but the lead characters had no internal conflict either, despite pasts that so clearly called for some. The film sidestepped the usual pre-visualized mayhem divorced from story, though its climax might as well have had no stakes at all. And rather than Marvel’s half-hearted expression of meaning — often a character arc culminating in punching harder — the film had no real theme to dramatize.
Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is a swing in the opposite direction, amping up the well-worn Marvel template to the point of inducing whiplash. It’s fun in parts, and it magnifies the series’ strong-suits; though in doing so, it exposes just how low the bar was set to begin with. The film can’t help but magnify the series’ weaknesses too, since they’re often one and the same.
Everything that was missing from Ant-Man and the Wasp comes rushing back, with the studio’s very name stamped across the title, as if to parody the common through-lines of twenty prior films without the self-awareness to do so. And while it’s filled to the brim with metaphor and ostensibly political outlook, the film is both haphazardly assembled, and shackled by the same constraints as fellow military-funded entries Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Only this time, the effects of the film’s mandated propaganda are significantly stronger.
Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie through-and-through, and that’s a problem.
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