REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!

REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson, Based on the comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer

Luc Besson is probably one of the most risk-taking filmmakers out there today, although that declaration should come with a qualifier; his risks aren’t in innovation or narrative, style, or visual effects techniques, but in the simple fact that he always sets out to please his own violence-loving tendencies. A glance through his filmography reveals an almost Hong Kong filmmaking-esque fetishizing of martial arts, gunfights, and balls-to-the-wall action is evident, and when coupled with his unique French perspective on the camera lens it makes for at least a good time, if not always a breathtaking time. Valerian is somewhere towards the bottom part of his middle ground, breathtaking to the eyes but not so much the head and heart, but is that really a bad thing?

In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha: an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. 

Based on the popular Franco-Belgian comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson’s film is a very obvious labor of love by the French auteur, having grown up reading the comic since it’s beginning in the yesteryear of 1967. Financed with a combination of crowd-sourcing and his own pocket, totaling 210 million dollars, Valerian is now the most expensive independent film ever made. Not that it matters much now that the film is tanking in the box office, but I suspect Valerian will have longer legs on home video and in the streaming market, where its spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element carved out a cult following.

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Valerian begins with what is now among my top-ten opening sequences of the past decade: the progression of the Alpha Space Station over two centuries, presenting all sorts of human and alien peoples joining hands with a succession of welcoming captains in mutual cooperation–and it’s set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Solid start. Continuing onto probably the best full-out visual effects sequence since anything seen in Avatar, we are introduced to the Pearls, a race of peaceful, nature-oriented aliens who fish magical, energy-giving pearls from the oceans, using small creatures called converters, that can replicate a hundred-fold anything they consume, to replenish the planet’s supply. But, just as quickly as we come to admire them, the Pearls’ paradise is shattered by the falling wrecks of a space fleet, and they seem to be obliterated by a war that they had no part in.

Without having actually read Valerian, I can’t say for certain that this is an accurate assessment, but from what I do know, this opening is an excellent demonstration of Christin’s humanist and liberal leanings in his writing, which comes more and more to the forefront through Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, as independent and humanist as they come, compared to her partner and superior, Major Valerian, who’s womanizing ways and adherence to protocol and law do more than infuriate his partner and the object of his desires throughout the story.

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Unfortunately, with their introduction is where I start to tune out. While Delevingne’s performance is a bit wooden in places, this is all a part of the package, as a glance through the comics reveals their Golden Age Space Opera origins, ’30s dialogue and all. In fact, in many scenes, I found her to be the breath of fresh air compared to Dane DeHaan, who in this critic’s opinion, should never have been allowed near the role of Valerian. His cheap imitation at a manly comic strip hero’s voice betrays how shrimpy he looks in the role, as if he were a ten-year-old boy playing astronaut dress-up. He has absolutely no chemistry with Delevingne, and his stunted delivery during some of the most pivotal and emotional moments destroys the drama almost as much as Besson’s barely passable writing.

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Oh yeah, the script. Honestly, past the mentioned opening, I’m not too impressed with the story. The comic was a space opera with heavy time travel elements, with Laureline literally having been an 11th Century French villager before being recruited into the Spatio-Temporal Service. The film makes little-to-no mention of time travel at all, presumably to streamline things for a wider audience, but that is no excuse for robbing Valerian of what could have been another major selling point besides the amazing visuals. Even worse is Besson’s handling of the romantic subplot and Commander Filitt’s (Clive Owen) motivations; while Filitt’s endgame is needlessly drawn out over ten minutes of precious climactic screentime, Valerian is established as already wanting to get into Laureline’s pants, and after only 20 minutes, is to the point of proposing to her. May I remind you this film is almost 140 minutes long?

Past these immense problems, the film starts to present some redemption. Everyone else in front of the camera does a pretty good job with their material, even when their roles amount to little more than extended cameo’s like Ethan Hawke and the great Rutger Hauer. And for once, Rihanna was actually one of the better parts of a movie.

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However, the real star of Valerian is the immense and immersive world created on screen through some of the best CGI work in a long time. Created by a unified team of ILM and Weta Digital artists, everything from the massive world of Alpha to the myriad species of alien beings are created lovingly and in textures that appear incredibly lifelike in Besson’s neon-lit style employed in this picture.

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So, what is my final verdict? While the casting of Valerian himself and Besson’s writing are huge flaws that pull the film down from the potential it could have had, ultimately, it isn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, the immersive world on display and the thrilling alien action are enough to convince me to give this film another go around when it hits blu-ray. Until then, I’d say proceed with caution on a matinee or discount night at your local cinema. Wait until a more worthy independent project comes along to pay full price.

REVIEW: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)

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Directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells
Written by Flint Dille, Story by Charles Swenson, Characters Created by David Kirschner
Starring the Voices of Phillip Glasser, James Stewart, Dom DeLuise, Amy Irving, John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Erica Yohn, Cathy Cavadini, Nehemiah Persoff

One of the many VHS tapes I wore out as a child. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West may have been the animated cinema equivalent of blasphemy–a sequel to a Don Bluth film made without his presence–but it still holds a special place in my heart for sentimental reasons. It’s actual merits are a little harder to defend, but not impossible.

Some time after the Mousekewitz’s have settled in America, they find that they are still having problems with the threat of cats. That makes them eager to try another home out in the west, where they are promised that mice and cats live in peace. Unfortunately, the one making this claim is an oily con artist named Cat R. Waul (John Cleese) who is intent on his own sinister plan. Followed by their true cat friend, Tiger (Dom DeLuise), the Mousekewitz’s travel west, where Fievel must team up with his Old West sheriff hero, Wylie Burp (James Stewart), to stop Waul.

Bluth’s original film was made towards the beginning of his remarkable directorial career, after he had left Disney and set up shop with Universal studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. While that relationship would soon end, An American Tail was the result of that pairing. With Bluth out for the sequel, Spielberg proved to be the guiding influence that saved this sequel from complete ruin, bringing on board two likewise former Disney animators, Phil Nibbelink, and the grandson of the great H.G. Wells, Simon Wells.

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Picking up where the original left off with Fievel’s family having settled on the East Coast of America, the film quickly glosses over any and all continuity hiccups quickly, showing that their “land of opportunity” wasn’t all it was croaked up to be. After an attack by a vicious cat gang drives them underground, they are duped into heading west to start yet another new life by the villain of the picture, Cat R. Waul, played with eloquent viciousness by John Cleese, easily becoming the best voice of the film.

Out west in the town of Green River, the mice are again lured into becoming the workforce for the cats building the town, who plan to then feast on the mice as a celebration. Fievel goes to the town’s canine sheriff, the old and tired Wiley Burp, for help, who then enlists Fievel’s cat friend Tiger for a vigorous training and showdown with Waul’s gang. James Stewart, in his final role, voices Burp with all the Western movie star swagger he has left, becoming an excellent compliment to the wild antics of Dom DeLuise as the cowardly Tiger.

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Despite Bluth’s absence, animation technique and style remain mostly consistent with the first film, even in the face of design changes to several characters. In fact, the only real minus I can give to the animators is that the color palette of this film seems a bit bright compared to the rusty bronze of the first, but then again, this could be a consequence of the change of setting to the sandy western deserts of America. The film’s score is as proficient and moving as the original, with the new song, “Dreams to Dream,” as good as “Somewhere Out There” was.

If there’s a major flaw to Fievel Goes West, it’s the story. Clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s shrimpy compared to An American Tail, seemingly missing an entire act before Fievel goes to Burp for help, and spending much of its early minutes establishing yet another “Fievel gets separated from his family” subplot. Even his father doesn’t seem to worried about him after he is lost, considering that this a movie that steals just a bit too much from its predecessor.

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Opening the same weekend as Beauty and the Beast, Fievel Goes West was destined to be smashed by that superior film, even without its narrative deficiencies. However, this said, it tends to be an overlooked piece in early ’90s animation, worthy of just as much praise and attention as any of Bluth’s films from the same period. I just wish there was more of it.

EDITORIAL: Marvel vs DC

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I know, I know. I have high ambitions for my first editorial. Looking forward to reading those well thought-out and considerate comments!

It is a battle with divisions deeper than the Middle East conflict. Marvel Comics against Detective Comics. Marvel vs DC. Day vs Night. Yeah, I went there. With origins separated by almost 3 decades, Marvel and DC quickly became rivals in the huge American comic book industry, and still today the typical image of the superhero is ingrained in the characters each company offers to its readers. While much has been and continues to be said and debated over the individual merits and flaws of each company’s franchise, fictional histories, and business strategy, I’m here to go into a specific market of each company, one out of many yet probably the most prominent aspect of each entity today.

I’m going to compare their cinematic universes.

Now, at first it may seem very unfair, given that the MCU is on its 16th film with several network television and Netflix series under its belt, while the so-called DCEU is only 3 films in. But fret not, I’m not here to bash. I am going to point out the deficiencies in each one, sure, but this being a full comparison means that I’m going to provide as clear a picture as I can of the unique flavor of both franchises, and how each reflects the core heart of each company’s approach to the American superhero.

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So, where do we start? How about the beginning? Why yes, invisible twin! Let’s start at the beginning: 2008.

MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe, known colloquially by fans as the MCU, was the brainchild of Kevin Feige, who in 2005 as the newly-formed Marvel Studios’ second-in-command under Avi Arad, envisioned an interconnected series of superhero films based around the only big characters Marvel still held film rights to: the Avengers. Shortly after becoming Chief Producer with Arad’s departure, Feige oversaw the formation of a committee designed to ensure creative integrity and continuity in the universe. This committee included Marvel Studios co-President Louis D’Esposito, Marvel Comics President of Publishing Dan Buckley, Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada, writer Brian Michael Bendis, Marvel Entertainment President Alan Fine, and Feige himself. Together, these six would begin crafting a broad, arching storyline that would form the basis for the MCU, which officially started with Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Armored Avenger, Tony Stark.

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Despite the nearly three-year preparation and formation of the MCU, this wasn’t a very well-known fact at the time among normal moviegoers; with only a short post-credits stinger introducing Samuel L. Jackson as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, as any indication that a larger universe lay ahead, Iron Man was very much a standalone superhero flick, concerned with establishing its character first before introducing the universe at large.

This theme of the slow reveal continued throughout the MCU’s Phase One, with The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger containing smaller references to the world at large, mostly in the form of background easter eggs, plot devices, and of course, the omnipresent stinger, which by now has become a Marvel trademark. Not until 2012’s The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon, did the MCU explode into full frame, with an ensemble assortment of characters, a storyline that reached deep into the Marvel toybox, and plot points that set up the next two Phases of films.

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As pioneering as this approach to world-building as this was, critics and audiences had reservations as well as hope, particularly in the cinematic styles of the films themselves. Looking at the Marvel output, one gets a sense that everything just looks almost the same, and there is truth to that statement. Despite Phase One containing diverse directorial talent from Kenneth Branaugh and Joe Johnston to newcomers Jon Favreau and Louis Leterrier, only Whedon seems to have been afforded a semblance of visual freedom, electing to shoot Avengers in an uncommon 1.85:1 ratio which greatly opens up the big action pieces that are the lynchpin of his film. Everything else, even when factoring in the signature trademarks of each helmer, feels as if it has all been sanitized into a one-size-fits-all box of cinematography.

 

While this continues into Phase Two at first, the influx of new filmmakers into the mix began to show. With names like Shane Black, James Gunn, and the Russo Brothers, Phase Two is where the MCU really started to hit its stride. The films began to take on more and more of their ancestral formulas; the Russos’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier borrowed heavily from 1970s spy and conspiracy thrillers, while Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a visual and auditory explosion of saccharine, presenting a colorful cosmos set to hit music from the ’70s and ’80s. Even Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, while thematically as safe as Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, is an eclectic mix of heist movies and Golden Age sci-fi, able to tangle with the bigger hits of the summer easily.

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Phase Two also brought the MCU into television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC and the Netflix shows, starting with Daredevil. While the ABC series have definitely hit roadblocks in terms of their writing (and in the sad case of Agent Carter, cancellation), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is still airing, with many more on the way such as The Inhumans, Cloak and Dagger, The Runaways, and the just-announced New Warriors. However, it is the Netflix shows where the MCU shines on the small screen, with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist acting as a sort of R-rated Avengers, setting up a highly-anticipated miniseries called The Defenders in November of this year.

With the MCU now in its Third Phase of films and approaching a turning point with the third and fourth Avengers films in 2018 and 2019, it seems like the sky is no longer the limit for Marvel as they continue to rake in profits, bolstered by an ever-increasing critical support for their films.

DC EXTENDED UNIVERSE

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While the MCU was in the process of carving out its name in pop culture, Warner Brothers was still in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Itself a massive monetary and critical success for their company, the trilogy however was not conducive to beginning a shared continuity due to its heavy basis in realism and the whims of Nolan’s creative fancy. During the Nolan years, several attempts were made at rebooting the series, with the project closest to becoming a reality being George Miller’s Justice League Mortal. Without getting too much into it, this picture failed to be made, and instead, a new film focusing a reboot of Superman was pitched, written, and shot instead, guided in the scripting phase by Dark Knight alums David S. Goyer and Nolan himself, and then handed off to Zack Snyder.

While containing several references to other DC characters such as Batman, Man of Steel was made more as a “backdoor pilot” to a new shared universe, one that could stand alone if not successful but launch a franchise if so. Meanwhile, Warner’s television holdings began to air several series revolving around DC comics characters, beginning with Arrow in 2012. This started three distinct continuitues, with Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow sharing one, Gotham, a Batman prequel series centered on Detective Jim Gordon, and Supergirl contained within their own universes. Due to the hard sci-fi nature of The Flash and Legends, these shows have still crossed over several times, but never with any DC films at the time of this writing.

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After the modest success of Man of Steel, DC announced in 2014 a slate of ten upcoming films sharing continuity with the new Superman, and a year later finally placed a name on this continuity: the DC Extended Universe. Including the television series as separate universes, the DCEU functions as a multiverse, with different realities containing the various properties. This was done in order to include the television series without having to keep to their continuity, allowing the films to start fresh with only Man of Steel to have to honor.

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The film portion of the DCEU began in earnest with the March release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Introducing the new Batman, and for the first time on film, Wonder Woman, BVS did eventually become a blockbuster hit, but not after taking a savage pounding by critics and inducing a polarizing effect on the fanbase with its lackluster script and treatment of its characters. Later that year, Suicide Squad joined the ranks of the DCEU, presenting a team-up of DC villains that was even more polarizing than BVS, simultaneously earning low marks in reviews while winning an Oscar for makeup effects. It would not be until Wonder Woman‘s June release of this year that the DCEU earned near-unanimous praise, and not a moment too soon, with Justice League, its first high-profile team up film, dropping in November.

SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Now, before I start, there seems to be some contention on whether it is even appropriate to compare the two franchises, let alone where to make the comparison. Do only the early Marvel films count, since the DCEU is 4 films in while the MCU is packing 16? I’m actually going to throw caution to the wind and open up the playing field for all the films, because, and let’s face it, the DCEU may be new, but they had the advantage of paying attention to Marvel and learning from their mistakes. So there it is.

Some of the more obvious visual differences are easy to spot, such as the DCEU’s usage of film over digital since BVS, which affords those films a more natural and dynamic look as opposed to the brighter, cleaner-looking Marvel offerings. There’s also the fact that Warner has full control over all characters in the DC Comics, having never had to experience the bankruptcy and selling off of film rights that Marvel did in the 1990s.

The audio experience of each franchise is also worlds apart, specifically in the musical motifs. While Marvel films have consistently proficient and even wonderful scores, the continuity of themes are virtually nonexistent, with sequels rarely carrying over the music of the previous installment. Really, only Alan Silvestri’s Avengers themes are brought back at all. Compare this with the grand and graceful work of Hans Zimmer, who is said to have composed the main themes for every Justice League member, and there’s another point for the DCEU.

 

However, the advantages start to taper off for the DCEU right about here. The biggest disadvantage that the DCEU has is it’s writing, pure and simple. From BVS on, there has been a persistent deficiency of even passable writing, from character motivations and development, to basic story structure, and it has greatly hurt the infant franchise. To illustrate this, I’ll be specifically comparing BVS with Civil War.

Image result for Captain America CIvil WarReleased only two months apart, BVS and CW both feature conflicts between superheroes considered by audiences at large to be friends and partners, motivated by deep philosophical and moral rifts between them. CW, being the first of Marvel’s Phase Three and the 13th film overall in the series, had the enormous advantage of the established story before it. Here, Steve Rogers/Captain America and Tony Stark/Iron Man find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with Stark supporting the Sokovia Accords, an international treaty governing the actions of superheroes, and Rogers opposing it to keep his friend, Bucky, out of an armored cell. Their arrival at these two different ends of the ideological spectrum had been evolving throughout the entire series, with Stark beginning very much distrustful of authority and Rogers firmly supportive of it. Their backgrounds reflected this as well: Rogers as a WWII veteran and super soldier, Stark as a freewheeling billionaire playboy who had been fighting off a government wanting to appropriate his weaponized armor for years. The events of the series slowly change them; Stark’s growing PTSD leads him to create Ultron in an attempt to secure world piece, only to backfire horrifically when Ultron goes rogue and kills thousands of people, while Rogers witnesses S.H.I.E.L.D., the clandestine spy agency he serves, grow more and more authoritarian until it is revealed that his worst enemy, the HYDRA organization, had hijacked it decades ago, and infested the entire world’s political infrastructure. The journeys these characters have taken are logical and conducive to good drama, culminating in an emotional slugfest when Stark, who’s already-strong self-destructive streak is at its peak, makes a snap-decision to murder Bucky for killing his parents while under HYDRA control.

Image result for batman v superman bruceBVS, on the other hand, had only one film before it to set up any characters, and that was a solo Superman film. Thus, Clark Kent is the only character that receives enough backstory to understand, but even that is no help in reasons that will become clearer in a moment. The new Bruce Wayne of the film, played with a suave and masterful swagger by Ben Affleck, is nevertheless an enigma; he is an older Batman, having already suffered the loss of Robin years ago, an event that seemingly pushed him over the edge into killing criminals, a decision that alienated many fans. This is the only semblance of any character building with Batman that leaves audiences unfamiliar with him, and hampers any connection we can make with him.

This doesn’t get any better when we realize that almost nothing the characters do actually contributes to the story. If it is true that the typical story act ends when a character makes a fateful and irrevocable decision, than BVS must have a two-hour-long act, followed by an ten-minute one, when Batman decides to kill Superman over flimsy fears that he will turn bad, and then decides to let him live over one of the most poorly-executed scenes ever filmed.

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You know the one, don’t ask.

And sure, Lex Luthor decides to kill Superman, using Batman to do it, but we never see this choice go down–he has decided to do it already when the film begins. Batman’s attempts to recover the kryptonite from Luthor and find out what he is doing with it are useless, as an action sequence involving the Batmobile ends with him failing to recover it, and later scene of Bruce infiltrating Luthor’s ball also ends with him losing the data to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, so what was the point of those 20 minutes of precious screentime?

And then comes the big fight. Luthor holds hostage Clark’s mother Martha, forcing him to deliver Batman’s head if he wants her to live. Resolving to try to enlist the Batman’s help, as he reveals to Lois Lane, Superman heads to their confrontation, and tries to reason with Bruce…all of two times. By the third booby-trap Batman has sprung on him, Clark suddenly decides that he’d rather fight this man who needs advanced armor just to survive one of his blows rather than save his mother, and this is before he gets hit with kryptonite. It’s such a petty and out-of-character moment for Superman that it obliterates all of the development he had in the previous film. Remember how angrily he attacked Zod when he threatened his mother? Or how devastated he was at having to take Zod’s life to save others? Well here, he turns his back on both of those plot points, and its only to give us a Batman vs Superman fight, because Goddammit, it’s right there in the title!

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Superdouche.

Combine this with a role for Wonder Woman that only exists to give us a third leg in the Doomsday fight (and to open up a laptop with a Justice League trailer on it), and you get a mighty mess that leaves Nolan happy he didn’t have his name attached to it. With all of the emphasis on action scenes and pointless philosophical discussions that go nowhere, what should have been a solid Superman sequel with Batman as the antagonist quickly becomes an exercise on how not to write a script.

But why did this happen? Well, the most obvious explanation is that Warner wanted to catch up quickly to Marvel by putting out team-up films early, and capitalize on the Nolan-inspired wave of smarter blockbusters by injecting a directionless intellectual bent into a story with only enough meat for an hour of movie. This is Warner’s biggest weakness compared to Marvel: they simply don’t have a plan, and couldn’t be bothered to take the time to come up with one.

Remember, the MCU is guided by Kevin Feige and a committee of comic veterans who are experienced in plotting multi-issue story arcs that last years. Warner did not take this approach, only appointing Geoff Johns to Creative Head after the BVS fiasco. Even then, there is still no main story thread in place, as opposed to Marvel’s ongoing Infinity Stones storyline, which offers a basic framework while the characters evolve and grow on their way to the ultimate battle. The DCEU is very much a rudderless speedboat, employing a selection of its own first-rate filmmakers but not capitalizing on their strengths.

Another weakness of Warner’s franchise is the fact that they still assume more control over creative decisions. Within Marvel, Feige is free to direct the MCU as he sees fit, with minimal interference from the parent company (shocking that Disney would leave them alone, isn’t it?). There are still exertions of control over the filmmakers, most evident in the feud between Feige and Whedon during Age of Ultron, and the departures of Sally Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World and Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, but on the whole, this has been more the exception than the rule. Meanwhile, after BVS fell short of its projections, the heads of Warner stepped in, demanding extensive changes to the next film, Suicide Squad. Their alterations resulted in an even worse mess, with a film bearing an even more nonsensical storyline and no real growth from any character, essentially amounting to a video game level on film. In short, Marvel and Warner both meddle in the creative process, but to a lesser extent in the MCU and before the cameras roll, ensuring a more coherent product will hit the screens.

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So with that, MCU is definitely the more solid franchise, but that doesn’t mean the DCEU should be given up on. While the MCU’s television series tie in with the films, allowing for smaller side stories within the universe, the DC offerings are consistently higher-rated, and have the converse advantage of being able to go where they want to go, regardless of the film series. The DCEU has taken many more risks with its character portrayals, while the MCU is starting to feel stagnant in the fact that characters hardly die or face real danger. And when it comes down to it, Warner may be learning from their mistakes, if Wonder Woman is any indication.

So let’s say the DCEU rights itself, and become a real contender to Marvel’s dominance. How can it get there? Well, I know a little something of DC comics as well, for through most of my teen years I favored them more than the capeless denizens of Marvel. And I believe that the best way for that to happen is for DC’s runners and writers to recognize how different their heroes and stories are. Marvel makes topical entertainment, catering to whatever is hip and happening today. They’re entirely well-made pieces that will continue to captivate and offer up philosophical fodder for my sleepless nights, but they’ll never be as timeless as the worldly rage of Batman, or the lonely compassion of Superman. DC heroes and heroines harken back to the Golden Age of Comic Books, the introductory period of superhumans, and as such, the films should shift tone to reflect that heritage. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers are self-destructive creatures, doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over in front of us as a testament to our darker desires, while Diana Prince and J’onn J’onns see only the good in humanity, and fight to protect it.

In short, Marvel is riding a renaissance of cynicalism. It will be the job of DC to usher in the era of human optimism. This is their potential, and it’s high time they realize it.

Well, here it comes. I can’t wait to hear the polite and friendly responses to this accusing me of being a Marvel kiss-up or a DC puke, and let’s face it, I am much more of a Marvel fan right now, they are simply doing it better. But I really would like to see the DCEU succeed, so comparing the two and discovering the weaknesses and strengths of each is still a worthy endeavor. Am I crazy or am I onto something with this analysis? Let me know, I can take it.

As I flinch in the corner.

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

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Directed by Jon Watts
Written by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Eric Sommers, Story by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Bokeem Woodbine, Gwyneth Paltrow

And here we are, 16 films in and Marvel finally has back one of its most popular and iconic characters, Spider-Man. While Spider-Man reboots are now a running joke in today’s cultural climate, Tom Holland’s brief introduction in Captain America: Civil War spiked audience interest in seeing the character helm another film. So how does this third go around hold up?

Thrilled by his experience with the Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) returns home to New York, where he lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and attends high school with friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Liz (Laura Harrier). Under the watchful eye of his new mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Peter tries to fall back into his normal daily routine, but is soon distracted by thoughts of proving himself to be more than just your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. But when a new villain emerges to terrorize his city, everything that Peter holds most important will be threatened.

In the opinion of this critic, Spider-Man is in very good hands with Marvel Studios. After an extended introduction to Adrian Toomes and his crew as they embark on a life of crime after losing their Avengers cleanup work to the Feds, and a fun and inventive look back at the airport scene of Civil War from Peter’s phone, the first 20 minutes or so of the main plotline honestly had me a little bored and somewhat on guard. What with the repeated male gawking at Aunt May (yes, I know Marisa Tomei is a looker, I agree, but you can only make the same joke so many times before it gets old and kinda sexist) and what I thought were some odd casting choices (The Lobby Boy from Grand Budapest Hotel as Flash Thompson? Really?), the film really pulled through in short order, and delived on the tried-and-true Marvel formula of aping other cinematic formulas–in this case, the John Hughes high school movie.

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Director Watts apparently made his cast and crew embark on a Hughes marathon before beginning the shoot, and the effort shows. From the traditional Hughes school-hall situations to the young, hip soundtrack, Homecoming oozes this proud heritage. There’s even a scene of Spider-Man blazing through backyards like Ferris Bueller that’s so on the nose that any audience member will recognize it long before he webslings past an inexplicable outdoor TV playing the film. It’s all done so earnestly that it never feels like a rip-off, more like a loving homage that fits the character. After all, Peter is a sophomore in high school.

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Speaking of high school drama, Homecoming manages to pull off this super-important viewpoint way better than any of the previous films. Whereas the Sam Raimi trilogy rushed Peter out of high school in the opening act of the first film and shifted focus to more generalized, adult drama, Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man films went even darker, opting for a Dark Knight-esque melancholy that rightfully turned off moviegoers in the second film. Homecoming keeps its approach light, but that isn’t to say that the film is all cheese and laughs with no substance. There is a whole lot of teenage angst to chew on, with a climactic decision of Peter’s resulting a truly heartbreaking throwback to Tobey Maguire’s Parker walking away from Mary Jane, but done with much more care and subtlety. I don’t want to go too far into it and spoil the whole ending, but I’ll just say this: it’s already one of the MCU’s finer moments, and we’re only one year removed from the gut-wrenching ending of Civil War.

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In every role, from the main characters down to the bit players, the cast is sparkling bright. Tom Holland expands on his already-great intro as the Wall-Crawler with much more sauce for the goose, playing off of characters his own age with authenticity just as well as he portrays the star-struck kid around the great Tony Stark. The rest of the high-schoolers are just as true-to-form as Holland, blowing away the cheesy, 30-year-old jocks of the Raimi and Webb films. Even Zendaya, who most feared would pollute the story with Disney girl diva antics, is funny as hell as the school’s resident light emo. The best of the teens, however, is Peter’s best friend Ned, played brilliantly by Jacob Batalon. An almost wholly-original creation of the filmmakers, I forsee the loyal and nerdy Ned becoming a huge part of Spider-Man canon in the future.

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On the other side of adulthood, the actors stay in good form. RDJ returns briefly as Iron Man yet again, and shows us an interesting side to his character we haven’t seen until now: fatherhood, in the form of his mentorship to Peter. Jon Favreau appears frequently as Tony’s driver and assistant Happy Hogan, playing it a little more stern this time around, but it is understandable as his character spends most of the screentime with Peter, and he is most likely not a kid person. The real standout among the grownups is most definitely Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes. While Homecoming may have had more screenwriters than a red-headed stepchild’s biopic, one of the many areas they came through on was The Vulture, taking a second-rate thief with wings in the comics and actually giving him a sympathetic motivation that truly pays off with a tense third act. Keaton then injects his crazy eyes and wild gesticulation into the role, making it as much his own as he did with the Batman. In all honesty, I felt like I met Toomes before in one of many trips with my dad to CB radio user hangouts. That’s how good of an actor Keaton is.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming has earned quite a bit of praise from critics and audiences, just as pretty much every comic book film released this year has. I don’t know if it’s as good as Guardians 2 or Logan, but it feels pretty damn close considering how well it carves out its niche and sticks with it. While I am bothered by the portrayal of Aunt May as a more oblivious parent in this one, or the complete lack of anything related to Uncle Ben (seriously, not even a mention of his name. I know this isn’t an origin story, but at least let me see Peter and May break down once like they actually miss him!), these concerns feel trivial by the credits roll. Homecoming is top-tier Marvel, and I stand by this assessment.

REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Based on the Character Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones

As the penultimate film of Marvel Studios’ “Phase One,” The First Avenger introduces probably the most anticipated yet risky character they had up their sleeve at that point in time, Captain America. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see everything that could go wrong with this kind of character, and while the final product isn’t incredible, it fares pretty well, considering.

It is 1942, America has entered World War II, and sickly but determined Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is frustrated at being rejected yet again for military service. Everything changes when Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci)  recruits him for the secret Project Rebirth. Proving his extraordinary courage, wits and conscience, Rogers undergoes the experiment and his weak body is suddenly enhanced into the maximum human potential. When Dr. Erskine is then immediately assassinated by an agent of Nazi Germany’s secret HYDRA research department, headed by Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Rogers is left as a unique man who is initially misused as a propaganda mascot; however, when his comrades need him, Rogers goes on a successful adventure that truly makes him Captain America, and his war against Schmidt begins.

Captain America, even more so than Thor or Hulk, probably ends up being the most over-the-top and fantastic of the Phase One offerings, but that ultimately works to its favor, as the character of Steve Rogers is equally fantastic. Skinny and sickly beyond belief, Rogers is given the Super Soldier Serum, as quintessential a comic book construct as any, and literally becomes larger-than-life, a hero for the ages who takes the fight to the most evil regime that ever controlled a swath of the Earth. Luckily, The First Avenger handles this very well, never taking itself too seriously but never descending into camp, either.

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So many things could have gone wrong, be it the silliness of the premise when looked at more than five seconds, or the ever-present danger of going too far into American patriotism and nationalism (the film did depend on overseas business as well). Probably the most clear and present danger to the film was the casting of its main hero, which caused quite a stir when announced: Chris Evans, best known at that time for his comedic turn as the Human Torch in the divisive Fantastic Four series by 20th Century Fox. Here, Evans sheds the campy approach to play Rogers with a down-to-earth earnestness; Rogers is compelled to do the right thing at the expense of himself, and Evans never once makes it seem pretentious or untrue. He is helped in the first act by some of the best CGI work to date, which hides his impressive frame under the body of a 90-pound weakling. From zero to hero, Evans shines in his first turn as the Captain, and effectively dispels any misgivings anybody had over his selection.

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Image result for captain america the first avenger red skullNow this is not to say that The First Avenger is a character-driven film, far from it in fact. Every character is pretty much a one-dimensional figure within the film, but when everyone is this good, it kind of makes up for that deficiency. Hayley Atwell relishes her tough-girl role as Agent Peggy Carter, and manages to look damn fine in that 1940s look (Mmm-mmmm). Tommy Lee Jones brings a dry and sardonic wit to Colonel Phillips, as does Toby Jones as Dr. Arnim Zola, and Sebastian Stan starts his meteoric rise as a central player in the MCU here with a nice and steady performance as Bucky. Dominic Cooper appears as a young Howard Stark, a Image result for captain america the first avenger cartermechanical genius as well as a swingin’ playboy, proving without a doubt where Tony got his genes, and Hugo Weaving, while by all accounts did not enjoy his time on set (and in makeup), plays a great villain in the Red Skull, a sadistic and ambitious Ubermensch that even Hitler finds too evil for his own blood. My favorite supporting role, however, is definitely Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, a character as subtly humorous as he is deeply broken, capturing a kind of inner torment that echoes memories of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

As good as the cast is, I feel Joe Johnston deserves the spotlight on this feature. Chosen specifically for his work on other period piece films like October Sky and The Rocketeer, he effectively copies his previous work, striking a balanced tone between drama and adventure. His old-school, dusty vistas look compliments the Markus-McFeely script nicely, and helps ground the more fantastic flourishes of the story, namely the oodles of mad-scientist wonder weapons running around in the hands of Hydra foot soldiers. In going for a pulp-comic feel that evokes good memories of Indiana Jones, Johnston and his team have created an exciting adventure that pulls from both history and fiction to tie two disparate worlds of Marvel, the Earthly and the Cosmic, together in style.

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While I still wish that the Howling Commandos had more screentime and that the final scene was relegated to post-credits status, I still have fun viewing The First Avenger. While it is not up to scratch compared to its two sequels, it proves to be a worthwhile starting point, and presents Cap at his most morally clear point. Take that, Superman.

REVIEW: The Right Stuff

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Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Philip Kaufman, Based on the Novel by Tom Wolfe
Starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat, Levon Helm, Mary Jo Deschanel, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer

Released to relatively little success in 1983 during former astronaut John Glenn’s failed Presidential run, The Right Stuff has now become somewhat of a cult hit, garnering more praise as the years go by. And why not? Based on one of the best-selling nonfiction books by Tom Wolfe and written and directed by Philip Kaufman, an interesting figure in cinema by any measure, The Right Stuff is probably one of the most fun and fulfilling pictures in the epic tradition out there.

The story of the beginnings of the US space program and the first seven Mercury astronauts, beginning when Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaks the sound barrier in 1947. After the Soviets successfully launch the Sputnik satellite in 1959, the U.S. redoubles its efforts to catch up, selecting 7 pilots for the program. They instantly become super stars, appearing on television and having articles written about them in Life magazine. The work, however, is serious and dangerous, as it has never been done before.

The Right Stuff is truly marvelous in every way. A near-perfect synthesis of excellent screenwriting, sublime editing, stunning photography and great performances, Philip Kaufman’s 7th film never ceases to put a smile on my face.

Related imageBeginning in 1947 with the breaking of the sound barrier, Sam Shepard enters the fray as the story’s first true hero, Chuck Yeager, a bona fide ace of World War II, now a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. Shepard’s performance, which was nominated for an Oscar, is authentic and confident, showcasing the skills that this now-unheard-of actor possesses. Matching him in quiet countenance is Barbara Hershey as Yeager’s wife Glennis, in a small but impactful role. This first section of the film, despite depicting several historic flights by Yeager, is quite intimate and quiet, showcasing the stresses placed upon both the pilots risking their lives to “push the envelope” and on their wives, who will be left with nothing save a few months’ pay to pick up the pieces.

While Yeager and his civilian rival Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) continue to break speed and altitude records, the film slowly introduces us to several smaller pilots with big destinies ahead, namely the slick, silver-tongued devil Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), the ever-serious Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). When President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon Johnson (played hilariously and to a T by Donald Moffat, Texas drawl and all) form NASA, Grissom and Cooper will join the quietly confident and uniquely eccentric Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), along with Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and of course, John Glenn (Ed Harris) to become America’s Mercury 7 astronauts, reaching levels of fame that Yeager and Crossfield never manage to achieve before they even step foot into the capsule.

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It is here where Kaufman’s screenplay really shows its steady legs. Throughout the constant and ridiculous testing at NASA to bureaucracy and empty showmanship designed to stir up the American people about a program which could falter and collapse at any moment against the Soviets, The Right Stuff rightly presents all of the silliness and irony inherent in the nation’s early space program, and in the rivalry between the astronauts from all three branches of the military. There are just so many great examples: the Congressional briefing in which Harry Shearer and Jeff Golblum seriously suggest circus performers as astronaut candidates, the comical friendliness between Marine pilots Carpenter and Glenn while the others are so incredibly cut-throat towards each other, even the uncomfortable first flight of Shepard, who is ordered to hold his bladder in the capsule while shot after shot after shot of running hoses, spilled coffee, and bubbling water coolers taunt him from afar, become near-Vaudeville routines of humor. And all the while, the film never descends into lampoonery, dropping us back into seriousness with ease whenever one of the astronauts embarks on a flight or taking us back to Edwards to check in on Yeager.

Another strength of Kaufman’s script is the use of cinematic devices to convey its story. Consider the old preacher from Edwards who’s solemn duty there was to inform wives of their husband’s deaths, as if he were the Reaper himself. Being one of the first characters seen in the film, he pops up quite frequently in the first act, a constant reminder to the wives that their husbands may be next. And when Shepard embarks on his first trip into space, who is there watching and waiting for his possible death than he.

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While all of the Mercury 7 actors are perfectly cast and precisely embody the larger-than-like men they portray, Harris is easily the standout, just as Glenn was. Harris conveys such a prim and pure honesty and confidence, not just in his skills behind a control stick but in his conviction to God, country, and family that I almost forget that I’m not actually watching John Glenn on the screen. But this isn’t just a man’s movie, as the women of the film turn in some great performances of their own. The aforementioned Hershey is a woman apart from the rest in her relative lack of interest in the glamorous life of the others, while Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom is just a true delight to watch. Mary Jo Deschanel is especially good as Glenn’s wife Ann, a fragile woman barely keeping it together as her husband sits atop a missile originally designed to nuke a city.

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When the momentous flights into space truly begin, the technical mastery of Kaufman and his team become more apparent than ever. Shepard’s flight in particular displays some incredible matching with actual stock footage used, at the same time treating us to some of the best night photography I’ve ever seen. Editing by Tom Rolf is also perfectly sublime, making incredible use out of reused material for later cutaways that expand the scenes and work around what was surely budgetary constraints, while also providing some of the best scene transitions out there (my favorites are Yeager’s “What’s next, Ridley?” line, followed by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and the slow move in to the pitch-black afterburner of Yeager’s F-104 and back into the Sam Houston Coliseum where the astronauts are being treated to a celebration).

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Special effects in The Right Stuff aren’t really of the cutting-edge variety, even for 1983 standards, but this does well for the film as a whole. As Kaufman said of his and visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez’s work, “we tried new techniques and old ones, often jerry-built. Sometimes we hurled models out of windows and filmed them on their way down.” The result is a sense of gritty authenticity to the images presented, with each plane flight appearing almost completely real, while the main effects sequence of Glenn’s three orbits around the Earth has an eerie sense of analog charm to it that entrances me to this day. And while Bill Conti’s score was a last-minute replacement for the work of John Barry, Conti’s work is no less significant, providing some truly rousing and inspiring cues while adapting selections of Holtz’s The Planets for others.

All in all, I’d go so far as to say that The Right Stuff is one of the greatest films of the twentieth century. It’s intimate and humorous at the same time as it is epic, and is so good it is a film I enjoy around every 4th of July, contributing to the fact that our nation’s accomplishments in space are among the few I am still proud of. If you’ve never watched The Right Stuff, don’t let the three-hour runtime scare you. I would classify it as probably the most fun epic film you’ll ever see.