Tyler Trudeau

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Tyler Trudeau is a junior Architecture major from Raleigh, NC, who spends most of his time writing about film and TV, running in 90 degree heat, and bingeing Netflix shows. You can find more of his film criticism and editorials at his personal website below.

‘This Joint is Jumpin’ – ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ comes to Theatre Charlotte

The legacy of jazz pianist Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller arrives at the Eloise MacDonald Playhouse in Charlotte this month. Embarking opening weekend into the less-traveled sector where Theatre Charlotte holds the show, you could hear the elegant notes from the production’s pianist, Neal Davenport, before you even stepped through the door. Despite arriving a bit late on the night of Feb. 2, the excitement of the cast and the band onstage quickly drew me to my seat. Midsong, two members from the total of five in the cast belt out a Fats Waller classic “Honeysuckle Rose.” As Alabama native Marvin King wooed a sensational Keston Steele, the electricity on the stage reverberated effortlessly between the two. Their magnetic vibratos softened only by Davenport’s keystrokes, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” kicked off.

Sitting in the seat just five or six rows from the stage that night, I remained perplexed by how I had never stumbled into the home of Theatre Charlotte before now. Looking like some relic from a bygone era of the deep South, the Eloise MacDonald Playhouse holds a rich history in the Charlotte area. Maturing from a grassroots effort to mount amateur theatricals across the country during and after World War I, the organization once known as The Little Theatre of Charlotte has presented theater productions for decades. Today a renowned volunteer-led company dedicated to creating theater opportunities for those in the Charlotte region, the legacy of the small theater lies in the people at the heart of it.

While part of me was drawn to the theater’s production of Richard Maltby Jr.’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” given its jazz-focused premise and alluring musical repertoire, I couldn’t help but be fascinated in the small but profound presence of the historical theater on Queens Road. In a rather appropriate first venture out to the theater, I was treated to an equally as significant production, one charged with a similar grassroots appeal that flowed through the walls of Theatre Charlotte. It was here where two parallel histories converged, to marry results.

The story of revolutionary jazz pianist Fats Waller was told through the song and dance of the five performers, together representing some of the most influential black musicians that defined the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. With the cast including actors spanning from theater veterans like King and Noyne Obichere (her first time at Theatre Charlotte) to other talents like Danielle Burke and Tyler Smith, each of the performers held a defining characteristic that lent something distinct and fun to their performances. As the two men waltzed and wooed across the stage, baritone King playing the restrained, debonair gentleman to Smith’s rowdy bachelor, the two dusted off their dancing shoes in equal measure. As for the women of the ensemble, while the trio was at first quite difficult to distinguish apart, their unique voices came shortly as the show continued. While Steele was fairly underused, settling for a seat piano-side rather than center stage, she was easily the stand-out as far as vocals went.

Photo courtesy of Chris Timmons

Following the flowing duet of “Honeysuckle Rose,” the night was filled with rich ballads, mischievous croons, and a handful of infectiously emotional anthems. As Smith and King wallowed through comedic gems like “The Viper’s Drag” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” Burke and Steele delivered a titillating duet with “Find Out What They Like.” As the first act primarily utilized Davenport’s masterful strokes as he culled numerous themes from Waller, it was in the second act where the show truly picked up. As the solemn and sensual tracks of “Mean to Me” and “Two Sleepy People” balanced alongside crowd-pleasers like Smith and King’s “Fat and Greasy,” the entrance of the seven-piece band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson pivoted the show towards an enjoyable crescendo. It was here where the production’s unexpected highlight was found. As the band died down, fading not too far behind the dizzying nightclub scene in a shade of glum, blue downcast, the cast perched themselves at the edge of the stage to belt out a harmonious rendition of “Black and Blue.”

In a surprising hour and a half of joyful foot-tappers and startling melodies, Theatre Charlotte’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” made for a passionate and lively portrait of Fats Waller’s legacy. With director Corey Mitchell balancing the spectacular with the smooth and soft, he managed to string together a spirited cast eager to send up the many hits of the Tony Award-winning production. As the band and set design brought to the stage a traditional peek inside the vibrant nightclubs of Harlem in the 1920s, the performers evoked a soulful humanity in the rocketing, sometimes somber, themes of an era full of merriment, music and plenty of misbehavin’.    

Theatre Charlotte’s production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show” will be housed at the Eloise MacDonald Playhouse from Feb. 1 – 17. The show is directed by Charlotte’s own Corey Mitchell, with choreography by Ashlyn Sumner. Lighting and scene design is done by Chris Timmons and Tim Parati.

A Timely Kit of Parts: Underestimating the Metal Building

The latest exhibit to hit the Storrs Gallery is Associate Professor Greg Snyder’s “The Metal Building in an Expanded Field.” As the exhibit’s opening night namely touched on the metal building as the “go-to” for efficient and quick construction, it also spoke to the culture of making and how essential it is to designers and artists alike. Every component, from model making to erecting a house of cards, lent something to the ideas at play in Snyder’s unique collection. What I had imagined to simply be a discussion on the various types and uses of steel and other metals within the realm of architecture soon unfolded into a brief introspective into the exhibit’s own host.

While many might not know of Snyder and his distinct palette of teaching architecture, I personally am quite familiar to it. As a frequent occupant of Storrs Hall, I often saw Snyder as but a passing face in my studies as a young architecture student. It wasn’t until sophomore year that I had the professor for a course concerning the various materials that go into architectural design. As I did with many of my professors, I quickly crafted an image of who I saw Snyder as in my mind. Like many others, I found myself searching for an alias to put him under. The philosophical smoker. The semi-neurotic film advocate. The one who babbled at 80 miles per hour. The semi-accurate titles I had given my other professors just didn’t quite fit with Snyder. Although I had my reservations about him as a professor, there was still much to be gained from the way he taught. After taking his class and interacting with him a bit more, I saw Snyder as a number of things apart from simply a teacher. He was like any architecture professor should be: still a child at heart; excited about things and how they are made. He obtained objects and ideas and sought to understand them. He was above all a collector. A collector of things.

At the time, these “artifacts” he collected weren’t all that interesting to me. They displayed a history of making that was surely not as relevant today as it had been in the past. Building blocks, “kits of parts,” metal Erector sets, objects of the past that seem all too ordinary in the current age of technology. These objects represented something profoundly different to Snyder. It was this rich history of making and playing that drove his curiosities as both teacher and maker. It was in his introduction to the Storrs Gallery exhibit that Snyder quoted architect Aldo Rossi, saying, “The emergence of relations among things, more than the things themselves, always gives rise to new meanings.”

Entering the gallery on Feb. 1, the meaning behind these objects was laid bare. Not immediately, however. Once you accessed the gallery through a pair of looming metal walls and a crowd of eager faces, the faces of those professors I had always likened to an alias, tables were adorned with layer upon layer of intricate meaning. The idea for the gallery and its stark yet captivating display began with the metal building. Like Snyder put it, these structures — warehouses, sheds, factories, barns, storage containers — are commonplace in our society. They represent the idea of the “kit of parts” (a popular phrase among Snyder and many other professors) like nothing else. Manufactured, prefabricated and built in little to no time, there is a peculiar architectural appeal to the metal building.

If you thought the extent of the exhibit stopped there, you’re surely wrong — just as I was. While Snyder sought to understand the metal building for what it is, items one can out of a catalog and erect in their backyard within weeks, he yearned to start a conversation as well. As a colorful amalgam of objects littered the tables of the gallery, the looming walls that surrounded it seemed to almost disappear. The things on the tables, as well as the walls, spoke to ideas of sharing, collecting and learning from our past. Be it the paper and metal models of cars and buildings placed neatly beside stacked editions of the Steel Construction Manual or modern LEGO sets sprawled beneath a screen playing David Byrne’s “True Stories,” these artifacts began to showcase the expansive reach ideas about making and collecting can have.

Photo by Patrick Magoon

As the mind of Snyder lay in every corner of the room, the things on display were surely not from a single person. As I darted around the room from table to table, glaring at the walls briefly only to be torn away by some trinket on the table, there were many ideas from a number of disciplines on display. Concepts of building structure intermingled with tractor catalogs (clearly from Snyder’s shelf), architectural drawings pinned on the walls looked down upon books of theory and film, and an air of conversation filled the room, one that would surely extended beyond the metal walls as the night went on.

With Snyder contributing to the conversation and while his peers and students encouraged to marvel at and question the display, the artifacts told a story that many could relate to. This interweaving of distinct objects and other things represented the collective consciousness of what it is to be a maker. While the inherent focus of the metal building told something of the ease and efficiency of an industrial America, the objects in the room told of the philosophy of the maker. Always the innovator, the maker collects and interprets things of the past and brings them to the present. The metal building, while often easy and commonplace, is complex to the eyes of Snyder and numerous others. It holds a rich history that touches upon a composite of fascinating themes beyond simply architecture.  

Leaving the gallery that night, a quote out of Snyder’s introduction stuck with me: “Where do ideas come from, and how do we keep them in play?” The metal building, in its intricate simplicity, was an idea. It will continue to evolve and be reinterpreted beyond the extent of where Snyder might place it now. One goal of his, however, was to capture the essence of the metal building within the culture of making. A cost-effective idea based on building blocks and catalogs. The same items that sit on the shelf of the teacher, collector, maker, now tinkering with what he has just up his sleeve.     

“The Metal Building in an Expanded Field” opened on Feb. 1 and will remain in Storrs Gallery until March 1. The gallery will be updated weekly as Greg Snyder adds to his “9 Ideas for Long Farm” section of the exhibit.

The Top Ten Best Films of 2018

With the new year in full swing and another twelve months of blockbuster hopefuls and ambitious debuts ahead, 2018 leaves behind a massive catalog of incredible films to look back on. From evolving franchises that sought to take the top spot at the box office to bold projects that worked to subvert our every expectation going into the theater, there are plenty of films that could have made it into my top ten of the year. While I surely didn’t catch every film this year (and I do intend to catch up), here are the top films that left their unique impression on me in 2018.  

(Spoilers from the films below will be discussed)

10. “Solo: A Star Wars Story”While the latest entry into the massive Star Wars franchise might not have been the box office hit it sought to be this past summer, May’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” ultimately made for a pretty satisfying experience at the theater. Even as it spun a predictable prequel adventure telling the simplified origins of cunning smuggler Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), the film presented a thrilling and worthwhile dive into the past of one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises.

9. “Creed II” – With 2019 set to offer a plethora of bold sequels to such films as “Avengers,” “It,” and even “Men in Black,” this past year lent us one of its best follow-ups in November’s “Creed II.” The sequel to the 2015 “Rocky” off-shoot “Creed,” starring Michael B. Jordan as the son of boxer Apollo Creed, the tale of Adonis Creed and his journey to the top of the boxing world found its focus once more in the past of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. As figures of the past converged to challenge Creed, the young fighter struggles to begin his next step with his fiancé (Tessa Thompson). Fueled by fantastic performances by Jordan and Stallone, “Creed II” made for a poignant continuation of the boxing franchise.

Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM)

8. “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Albeit a troubled production involving director Bryan Singer, the November biopic starring Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was released to audiences with mostly satisfying results. Anchored by an undeniably passionate performance from Malek, steadily maturing into the enigmatic and troubled performer throughout the film, “Bohemian Rhapsody” presented yet another phenomenal experience at the theater. Despite its narrative bumps, from breaking down the most iconic hits of the band to its tedious peeks at Mercury’s sheltered homosexuality, the musical biopic was a fascinating look at the sensational rise to fame for one of music’s biggest names.

7. “BlacKkKlansman”Rolling out at the tail-end of an explosive summer of major blockbusters, the latest joint from director Spike Lee found its premise in the incendiary tale of beat cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and his mission to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan as an African-American man. If that plot doesn’t scream an odd mix of controversial and flat-out entertaining filmmaking, I don’t know what does. As the film interjected a searing procedural drama with subtle jabs at White America, Lee’s latest offered an evocative portrait of one man’s determination to leave his stamp on a battlefield plagued by discrimination.

John David Washington as Ron Stallworth (Courtesy of Focus Features)

6. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”As 2018 simultaneously witnessed the demise of famed web-slinger Peter Parker at the hands of one gauntlet-toting purple guy as well as the rise of one of his deadliest foes in October’s “Venom,” the year’s end lent the character of Spider-Man one of his best entries in a long while. With December’s “Into the Spider-Verse” giving the reins to young hero Miles Morales for his big-screen debut, the animated adventure from the writers of “The Lego Movie” quickly made for one of the best films of the year. Packed to the brim with stellar animation, intense action sequences, and a tale of finding yourself amidst a chaotic dimension-altering premise, the latest Spidey effort was the perfect film to close out a year of bold superhero feats.

5. “The Favourite”Another late great of the year found itself in the latest feature from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. Ever since 2015’s “The Lobster” offered a dark comedic premise anchored by off-kilter performances and a peculiar tale of finding love in a demented dystopia, Lanthimos has remained a must-watch director of mine. With “The Favourite” tilting classic period dramas on their head as it sent up a viciously entertaining love triangle between the likes of Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz and the hysterical Olivia Coleman, the film balanced brisk black comedy with the stark thrills Lanthimos pulls off oh so well.

Emma Stone as Abigail (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

4. “A Quiet Place”If there’s one horror effort to define 2018, it has to be the April film from actor/director John Krasinski. While the horror genre rarely draws in its far-too-typical clichès often bogging down intriguing premises, “A Quiet Place” sought to use the tropes of the genre to their advantage. While most films use sound and score abundantly to signal our greatest fears, Krasinski and company turned the volume down to capture the true and horrifying value of silence. While the creatures amidst the silence might not have been anything new, the sound design and smart filmmaking from “The Office” alum cemented “A Quiet Place” as one of the top films of the year.

3. “Mary Poppins Returns”Following Emily Blunt’s turn as a mother desperate to keep her children safe alongside her real-life husband in “A Quiet Place, the actress’ next project was one 54 years in the making. Acting as the sequel to the 1964 film “Mary Poppins, the Rob Marshall-directed musical aimed to bring the heart and wonderment of the original back to the big screen. While the majority of the story brought nostalgia to the forefront, as its sing-song tale mostly paralleled the first film, its central focus on the Banks family and the return of their enigmatic nanny delivered a passionate and highly-enjoyable time at the theater.

Emily Blunt as Mary Poppins (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

2. “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” While big-budget superhero films and supernatural horror efforts ruled a summer of intriguing debuts, the latest installment in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise proved to be a major contender for one of the most memorable releases of 2018. With leading man Tom Cruise returning as the ever-nimble super spy Ethan Hunt in the most explosive entry yet, the thrills never dwindled as “Fallout” sustained Cruise’s title as one of the biggest action stars of all-time.

1. “Avengers: Infinity War”Despite my partial bias to put almost any one of the superhero efforts this year at the top of this list, be it the Shakespearean origins of the Black Panther to the under-sea spectacle of DC’s most unlikely hero, the third chapter in the star-studded “Avengers” series culminated into one of the defining events of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. While many films this year left me on the edge of my seat by their conclusions, no film seemed to match the acclaim and suspense of the Avengers’ penultimate battle against all-out decimation.

Josh Brolin as Thanos (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Best Songs of 2018 as Selected by A&E Writers

Album art courtesy of Tessa Violet.

Elissa Miller

4. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by the “Mary Poppins Returns” Cast: If there was a machine that you could throw your interests in to create a new product, the entirety of the movie “Mary Poppins Returns” would be my result. A sequel to one of my favorite movies? Check. Lin-Manuel Miranda as a character reminiscent of Bert the Chimney Sweep, my first childhood crush? Check. London as a backdrop for musical theater? You got it. While the movie is not a perfect film, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a practically-perfect song and dance number. Clearly mirroring “Step In Time” from the first film, this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and the movie’s) biggest number. It absolutely screams classic musical theater in both sound and design. Honestly, this felt extremely cathartic, because while I’ve loved the recent resurgence of musical films, they’ve generally failed to truly recapture that signature style. The dancing is absolutely breathtaking. The song is catchy and upbeat. Lin-Manuel Miranda looks like he is literally made of sunshine. I cried.

3. “Burn the House Down” by AJR: AJR crafted a perfect album with “The Click” in 2017. It was hard to imagine that adding anything could improve it, yet “The Click (Delux Edition)” somehow managed to do so when it included four new songs. While I’m a fan of generally every new addition, this the absolute best of them. It is a loud, angry anthem that reflects on Twitter and modern-day protest culture, while still being able to function as a dance track. The band allowed it to be used in conjunction with the March for Our Lives movement earlier this year. Everything about it, from the musical style (the horns in this are GREAT) to the lyrics, is compelling. More songs like this in 2019, please.

2. “Bad Ideas” by Tessa Violet: While Tessa Violet made waves with her other release, “Crush,” this year, I’m quite partial to this second song. One of many musicians to first find their audience on YouTube, Violet has continuously grown as an artist to create a signature style. This is incredibly clear with “Bad Ideas,” which stands out among indie-pop releases for its unique sound. Lyrically, it explores the concept of falling for someone you really don’t want to, while sounding upbeat and light as a musical piece. The music video for this is also a great time and uses color in one of the best ways I’ve ever seen. Violet will continue releasing her new album as singles in 2019; I’m incredibly excited to see how it evolves.

1. “Everybody’s Lonely” by Jukebox the Ghost: I definitely link songs to specific times and places in my life. “Everybody’s Lonely,” off Jukebox the Ghost’s fifth album, “Off To The Races,” was the distinct soundtrack of my study abroad trip in the spring. I listened to it during bus commutes, while stuck in airports and when typing papers at the very last minute. It is extremely fun to listen and sing along to, yet it is also complex musically. It uses a number of instruments and vocal layering; soundwise it is largely reminiscent of the band Queen. I cannot recommend it enough.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classical Records.

Noah Howell

4. “Spidey-Bells (A Hero’s Lament) by Chris Pine: “Into the Spider-Verse” was one of my favorite films of the year, and is easily the best animated feature of 2018. The whole ride is a spidey-bonanza, and waiting into the credits was worth the wait for this song alone. Chris Pine is hilarious here and he gives me the Spider-Man Christmas song I never knew I actually needed. This song, along with the album I discovered on Spotify after the movie, will be a staple in my Christmas playlist for years to come.

3. “Shockwave” by Elena Siegman: Easter egg songs are a staple within every zombies map in the “Call of Duty: Black Ops” series, and many of these, like “Shockwave,” are written by Kevin Sherwood and performed by Elena Siegman. There is a reason for this: simply because the duo is fantastic. Siegman’s vocal performance is always stellar, and while the lyrics take a bit to wrap your head around, her job on the song here is no different. I don’t usually find myself listening to much heavy rock/metal like this song, but perhaps it’s just a great backdrop to the actual gameplay of killing zombies that makes it work so well.

2. “That’s The Way it is” by Daniel Lanois: The score within “Red Dead Redemption 2” is already phenomenal, but the best moments of the game are the long, reflective horse rides which come after key story beats and feature songs from a variety of different artists. This song comes towards the game’s climax and is the perfect beat to go alongside the penultimate moment of the player’s journey. I can’t give away too much without risk of spoiling the game, but the song is right at home at this particular moment and is one that will stick with me for a while. 

1. “Kitster’s Song” by Trevor Moore: When a friend first suggested this song to me, I was on board right from hearing the title. A song about Anakin Skywalker’s somewhat obscure friend in “The Phantom Menace” who had only a handful of lines? Count me in. The song straddles the line of being outright hilarious and emotional all at once, with Moore singing from the point of view of Kitster years after his appearance on-screen, reminiscing on what his childhood friend — now Darth Vader — is doing these years later. I had never listened to Moore before this, but one thing is for certain, he knows his “Star Wars.” Parodies of “Star Wars” songs usually rely on simply changing up the lyrics of an already popular song, but Moore creates an entirely new song on his own for Kitster and it is a great one.

Album art for “EVERYTHING IS LOVE” courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment.

Breanna Herring

4. “Sauce All On Me” by CoCa Vango: Another song to contribute to my high self-esteem! This song raps about containing the sauce. “Sauce” is used to describe someone who has a style, confidence and attraction about them.

3. “Nice” by The Carters: Let’s be honest, The Carters are black royalty. This song serves as a confidence boost for me and motivates me to be successful. Some of the lyrics highlight how African Americans are told that they can do anything in America, but racism and inequality challenge the belief.

2. “Wasted Love Freestyle” by Jhené AikoThis song hit close to home for me. The song describes how sometimes our energy and love are not reciprocated back to us in a relationship. We find ourselves realizing that we wasted our time and energy on someone who was incapable of loving us the way we wanted to be loved.

1. “CPR” by Summer Walker: I adore Summer Walker and can completely relate to her and her music. The song “CPR” is a metaphor describing the artist’s lover. She characterizes his love as air bringing her back to life because she’s been misunderstood and alone for so long.

Album art for “Let’s Go Sunshine” courtesy of Lonely Cat Records.

Tyler Trudeau

4. “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA: As Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ erupted onto the screen as one of 2018’s biggest movies, the soundtrack, curated by hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, also made waves as it brought some of the top names in hip-hop together to showcase the massive influence of the superhero hit. Featuring the likes of The Weeknd, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and Future, the song that comes to my mind first lies in the Lamar and SZA team-up “All the Stars.” With it kicking off the end credits for the blockbuster film, the rhythmic ballad of SZA mixed with Lamar’s rap inklings remains one of the top tracks from the soundtrack.

3. ”Holy” by King Princess: One of the most enigmatic new artists I uncovered this year was Brooklyn native Mikaela Strauss, or as her fans know her, King Princess. A multi-instrumentalist with soulful vocals to match the atmospheric synth melodies that run behind her, Strauss has already made a name for herself as the next bold revolutionary in the queer-pop genre. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, the artist has expertly carved her way to the top as one of the most promising new artists out there. While her early hit “1950” might have won the hearts of fellow artists Harry Styles, Halsey and Mark Ronson, her somewhat haunting track “Holy” off her debut EP echoes with sonic nuance and cinematic flair.

2. “No Pressure” by The Kooks: After grappling onto other alternative rock groups like Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes, the unique sound of English band The Kooks quickly drew me into a similar fascination into their more recent releases. While their hit 2006 track “Naive” made for a worthy song to lodge itself eternally within my brain, I didn’t initially pick up their later records until this year’s “Let’s Go Sunshine.” With the rest of the record offering a foot-tapping catalog of drunken nights and unrequited affections, the closing number of “No Pressure” perfectly captures the ease and joys of a new relationship.

1. “Superposition” by Young the Giant: Easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year, the latest record from indie rock outfit Young the Giant kicked off with a trio of sensational, cinematic and undeniably catchy tracks. Escorting us effortlessly into their newest collection of soul-searching tunes of lost love, adrift ambitions and super-sonic melodies, the best of the trio in ‘Superposition’ shows off the band’s talented and atmospheric instrumentals, as well as the dreamy vocal nuances of frontman Sameer Gadhia.   

Album art for “Joy As An Act Of Resistance” courtesy of Partisan Records.

Aaron Febre

4. “One Point Perspective” by Arctic Monkeys: It was pretty difficult to pick one track off the new Arctic Monkeys album as I was thoroughly impressed with the overall product. This song takes the cake due to the wonderful layering of instrumentation, Alex Turner’s witty and observable lyricism as well as one of his best vocal performances. Plus, this reminds me of the 1970s for inexplicable reasons.

3. “Baby I’m Bleeding” by JPEGMAFIA: Released in January, JPEGMAFIA’s “Veteran” is one of the most exciting and intense albums of the year. “Baby I’m Bleeding” shows JPEGMAFIA’s fierce flow that is backed-up with an abrasive production that will leave your jaws dropped. Go ahead and play this, you won’t find another hip-hop track (or album) of this year that as fierce as this one.

2. “Dilemma” by Death Grips: As if all of their music wasn’t crazy enough, Death Grips returned with an even crazier album that made their previous work look more accessible. Out of my favorites from “Year of the Snitch,” “Dilemma” is my favorite for various reasons. Spoken word by Andrew Adamson (the director of “Shrek”), MC Ride screaming “DILEMMA!”, the video-game synthesizer and too many things that are incomprehensible to digest even for a fan of Death Grips.

1. “I’m Scum” by Idles: English Punk band Idles returned with a new album (“Joy As An Act of Resistance”) that is catchier and angrier than their 2017 album, “Brutalism.” This track encompasses the overall sound of the new album: Joe Talbot’s gruff voice, the steady and danceable rhythm, dirty guitars, a chorus that drunk soccer (or football) fans can sing along to, and the theme of “say what you want, I don’t care” in the lyrics make this song a favorite.

Artwork for “TINTS” courtesy of Aftermath/12 Tone Music LLC.

Cecilia Whalen

4. “Bring Me Love” by John Legend: Yeah, it’s a Christmas song. I get it; Christmas is over. But I love John Legend, so I take what I can get. He definitely has one of the most beautiful voices of this generation, and this song is upbeat, well-arranged, and of course, well-sung.

3.“TINTS (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” by Anderson .Paak: I don’t think there’s anything smart I can say about this song, but it’s just fun to sing along and dance to, OK? Plus Kendrick Lamar is featured on it, so you know it’s gotta be a win.

2. “1985” by J. Cole: I love J. Cole’s voice and basically every song he’s done. This song is kind of a diss track to all those who have come out dissing him, but Cole doesn’t just cuss them out and be done with it. Cole warns them about the harm their attitudes and their lifestyles are causing themselves and others — and he doesn’t sound like a bully or a punk defending his own pride. Really, he sounds like a big brother looking out for the hip-hop community, while peppered with the occasional big brother boast.

1. “Brackets” by J. Cole: J. Cole knows how to use rhythm. While a lot of rappers tend to repeat a similar rhythmic pattern, triplet and sixteenth after triplet and sixteenth, Cole masters syncopation. This matched with his poetry creates a whole album of reflection and creativity, and “Brackets” is the climax of both of these musical attributes.

Album art for “Love” courtesy of Reprise Records.

Mayra Trujilo-Camacho

4. “Taki Taki” by Selena Gomez, Ozuna, Cardi B and DJ Snake: It’s a song I can dance to that has a mix of Spanish and English.

3. “Money” by Cardi B: I just think it’s a very catchy song and even a good workout song. It’s very hype.

2. “Scripted” by ZAYN: This song comes from his second album “Icarus Falls,” after leaving One Direction in 2015.  It is a love song with a creative melody and nice chill R&B background.

1. “Love You Anymore” by Michael Bublé: From his new album “Love,” which was released two years after his son was diagnosed with liver cancer. “Love You Anymore” is a very beautiful song. It’s more of a song to forget your ex, but it just has a very nice melody and aesthetic.

Album art for “CARE FOR ME” courtesy of Saba Pivot, LLC.

Arik Miguel

4. Shoota (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” by Playboi Carti: When I listen to this song, I know that half of what I’m singing is my incorrect decipherings of Uzi and Carti’s mumble rapping. The other half of the lyrics have about as much depth as the line “money on the floor just like some shoes,” but maybe that’s not a bad thing. “Shoota” is fun just for the sake of being fun, and that’s really all we could have asked of these two besties in 2018.

3. “Hunnybee” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra: This is one the most gleefully infectious songs I have heard in a long time. “Hunnybeehas the power to evoke the childhood joy that comes from somersaulting down a grassy hill.

2. “PROM / KING” by Saba: “CARE FOR ME” is Saba’s greatest album yet, and “PROM / KING” is its emotional peak. The seven and a half minute song builds up slowly until Saba is rapping at breakneck speed, describing his cousin’s untimely death. Saba has always had an incredible gift for storytelling, but he’s never told his story as breathtakingly as this.

1. “Noid” by Yves Tumor: Yves Tumor intertwines beauty and violence in an incredibly jarring and exciting way. “Noid” is unlike any song I have heard in my life. Almost as if you asked an alien to compose a song about police brutality.

 

Listen to the music featured in this article via the Spotify playlist below!

TV REVIEW: ‘Marvel’s Daredevil’ rallies together a morally complex and highly engrossing third season

 

Minor spoilers from “Marvel’s Daredevil” and “Marvel’s The Defenders” will be discussed.

Even with the likes of “Iron Fist” and “Luke Cage” swiftly biting the dust on the small screen as the streaming giant of Netflix begins to clean house of its more maligned Marvel series, the pioneering superhero series that started it all in “Marvel’s Daredevil” returned this month to retain the show’s status as one among the top-tier of superhero television. Not only strikingly beautiful in its direction but breathtaking as it continued to bring classic comic-book lore to the small screen, the complex themes and all-too-real aesthetic of “Daredevil” pitched audiences its best season yet this October. As the shattered morale of its leading lawyer-turned-vigilante swayed towards increasingly darker measures, the essential thrills at the heart of the series returned to top form.

Following the conclusion of “Marvel’s The Defenders,” Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a.k.a. Daredevil, is presumed dead after a building explosion in New York leaves him and the assassin Elektra (Élodie Yung) missing. Finding himself among the walls of the orphanage he grew up in, Murdock reconnects with old friend, Sister Maggie (Joanne Whalley), as he slowly recovers from his injuries. As the shadow of vicious crime boss Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) looms behind his back, Murdock yearns to give in to his dark desire for vengeance instead of returning to his old life in Hell’s Kitchen. With Fisk on the cusp of gaining back his freedom from incarceration, waging his influence to manipulate the justice system that holds the city together, Murdock must traverse the thin line between good and evil once more in order to not only bring down Fisk, but keep the people he cares for the most alive.

With this year delivering a slew of sophomore debuts from the other Marvel-Netflix dramas, each varying in quality and reception, the one series I didn’t expect to return this year was “Marvel’s Daredevil.” After a somewhat-lukewarm second season arrived in 2016, which spun a far more mystical narrative hallmarked by the stellar debut of Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle, the character of Matt Murdock/Daredevil next found himself in the 2017 miniseries “The Defenders.” Even as the event series sought to tie up the loose ends of his second season, Daredevil’s story was far from over. With the burdens of a messier sophomore season in the wind, the third season of the series returned to the roots of the show, accessing once more the gritty, complex moral battle that made its first season so damn good.

The third season of “Daredevil” managed to situate itself in an intriguing spot as it rolled in just as 2018 seemed to be nearing its end. As the second season of the series pitched lawyer-vigilante Matt Murdock into a web of deceit and deadly ninjas, crossing paths with old flame Elektra Natchios along the way, “The Defenders” continued to toss a plethora of nameless goons and moral dilemmas at the complicated hero. Nothing, however, could match the vital trials Murdock was destined to face in his third solo outing this year. Essentially “killing” its titular hero by dropping a building on him and leaving him for dead, season three picked up as the crime-ridden realm of Hell’s Kitchen sought to move on from the hero that once bared its name. As the looming threat of crime bosses and corrupt organizations remained, however, the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen could not sit idly by and watch his city crumble.

That is where we find our dear leading hero Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox). Perhaps more broken than we’ve ever seen him before, the man who once served New York City as a counselor for law and justice has molded into a misguided soul on the cusp of giving into his darkest, most violent desires. As season three brought us back into the religious side of Murdock’s persona, the lawyer blinded in his childhood finding himself in the same Catholic orphanage he was raised in, we quickly saw the ideals that built up the show’s first season float to the surface again. While the question he has always struggled with remained (“Why would God blind me if he wanted me to see?”), the moral code Murdock had created as the vigilante Daredevil was also tested once more. Vowing not to kill those who can be redeemed, not to push the limits of law and order beyond what cannot be forgiven, Murdock’s muddled faith and cracked morality became even more complex this season.

While last season of “Daredevil” saw the rise of ex-Marine Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) as one of the central adversaries to Matt Murdock’s mission to protect Hell’s Kitchen, the undeniably massive presence of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin) could not possibly be left out of the show’s third season. As Charlie Cox delivered yet another startlingly nuanced performance as a man beaten and broken both physically and psychologically, the return of D’Onofrio’s volatile crime boss was easily one of the top draws of the season. Equally as furious and restrained as the show’s hero, the larger-than-life Fisk also entered the third season in a unique position. As Cox’s hero sought redemption and vengeance, the complex antagonist of Fisk waged war on the city the only way he could from the confines of a prison cell: painting his image as the savior the city deserves and tossing Daredevil’s name into the muck of a divided and increasingly corrupted playing field. As he coerced everyone to bend to his will, from the FBI’s best to the vile criminals who work under him, allowing him to slip through the cracks of law and order, Fisk matured into an ever bigger power player within the series.  

With the morale of a vengeance-fueled Murdock challenging that of a seemingly pure-hearted but ever-conniving Fisk like they have since season one, the supporting characters of the season filled the foreground just as profoundly as the show’s two leading men. As fantastic performances secreted from Murdock’s allies like Deborah Ann Woll’s crusading reporter Karen Page and Elden Henson’s passionate attorney Foggy Nelson, the newcomers to the series showcased a variety of potential. From the reserved dignity of Joanne Whalley’s Sister Maggie (surely a standout this season) to Jay Ali’s naive self-righteousness as FBI agent Ray Nadeem, the new faces that occupied Hell’s Kitchen brought yet another level of humanity to the series that worked to combat the shifting pathology of its leading crusader. Perhaps at the hero’s throat the most this season was Wilson Bethel’s iconic foe in Agent Ben Poindexter, whose sharp-shooting talents and psychopathic tendencies set their sights on bringing down the titular Man Without Fear.

Overall, as “Marvel’s Daredevil” weighed even heavier on the faith-driven complexities of its hero, the theological crisis of Matt Murdock became even more engrossing in season three. Balancing its profound themes of righteousness, identity and the line between evil and good with a motley display of comic-book thrills, the third outing of “Daredevil” only elevated the brilliance of one of television’s greatest superhero series. Even as the moral code of the blind vigilante continually wavers, the classical tale of a hero driven to his most violent edge as the faith to which he was once devoted fails him was right at home as the trials of Daredevil evolved in this latest chapter.

Season Three of “Marvel’s Daredevil” is available to stream on Netflix now.

 

Photos Courtesy of Netflix and Marvel Television

TV REVIEW: ‘Marvel’s Iron Fist’ Season Two shines a fleeting ray of hope on a consistently dull narrative

 

Mild spoilers from the second season of “Marvel’s Iron Fist” will be discussed.

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand further across the silver screen, the adjacent comic-book universe that resides on the small screen has packed this year with its own further explorations into its posse of titular street heroes. As March offered up another chapter with super-powered private eye Jessica Jones, and the summer lent more to the culturally-infused tale of the bulletproof Luke Cage, September sought to propel one of the small screen’s weakest links in the second season of “Marvel’s Iron Fist.” With the Netflix series weighing heavily on the familiar theme of family conflict, the season worked to tease at greater storytelling set to come, all while purposely sidelining its problematic leading hero.

With the events of “Marvel’s The Defenders” leaving New York City mostly scarce of protection from the growing wave of gang warfare on the streets, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) has evolved his purpose as the Immortal Iron Fist in order to become a silent protector to a volatile city. As he works to maintain a peaceful living with former martial arts master Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), the looming threat of his past manifests in Davos (Sacha Dhawan). As Danny’s former colleague yearns to take the mantle of the Iron Fist from him, a vicious battle for power ignites across Chinatown. As other deadly factors come into play, from warring factions to the venomous assassin Walker (Alice Eve), Danny must uncover his true role as the Iron Fist before the violence finally boils over.

When compared to the other Marvel/Netflix series that were set to debut their sophomore seasons this year, the return of “Marvel’s Iron Fist” was the one I was probably least excited about. Even while “Jessica Jones” evaded me for far too long, eventually leaving me solely with a surprisingly impressive second season for “Luke Cage,” I was less than eager to witness the continued adventures of the ill-fated martial arts-focused “Iron Fist.” With Season One offering up a widely-panned and fairly uncompelling origin for billionaire-turned-monk Danny Rand, which stumbled between being a corporate bore and a mythic-heavy tale of redemption, I had sparse hope that Season Two would play out much differently.

Promise for the new season, however, arrived in new showrunner Raven Metzner, who made it clear that a new direction was coming for the series. With that, while the tale of the Iron Fist still might have clung to its muddled mixture of comic-book and kung-fu clichés, it pulled off something I never expected the show to actually do: letting its central hero ride the coattails of a far more interesting supporting cast. As the first episodes of the season worked to strip Danny Rand of the power he harbors so close to his identity as hero and protector, while still maintaining him as the slightly-less whiny medium between rival Chinatown gangs, the season as a whole pushed towards emphasizing the elements that continue to hold the show together.

While I’ll delve into Rand and the faults of the show’s leading focus soon enough, a number of factors allowed the second season of “Iron Fist” to mature slightly beyond its lacking debut. As the scales of justice were mostly pushed aside this time around, opening the door for a handful of Rand’s former allies to forge darker paths, the narrative of the season focused primarily on the show’s antagonists. With last year’s team-up mini-series “The Defenders” leaving the thin-veiled collective of deadly ninjas and crime bosses known as “The Hand” in the dust, “Iron Fist” moved on to explore the villainous players stitched even closer to the show’s hero. While Jessica Stroup’s Joy Meachum took a back seat to Sacha Dhawan’s aggressive fighter Davos and his mission to reclaim his birthright, the duo created a suitable focus as the theme of family cropped up once again. While the potential of the conflicts between Danny and Davos, as well as Joy and Tom Pelphrey’s Ward, didn’t string out as far as I’d hoped, they did appear far more authentic than the conflict of family felt in Season One.

Also tossed in the mix was Alice Eve’s Mary Walker. Acting somewhat as the middleman between the dealings of Joy, Davos and Danny Rand, the inclusion of Walker (known as Typhoid Mary in the comics) sought to inject another facet of the deep-seated comic-book lore the season yearned to draw from. As if to say the mystical origins of Danny’s abilities weren’t confusing enough, Eve’s dissociative mercenary rolled into the series flocked with her own underdeveloped story to tell. Even while the actress channeled the multiple personalities of her comic-book counterpart to minor success, equally off-putting as she was hyper-competent, the entrance of the character felt more like filler material rather than a worthwhile addition to the story.

With the show’s first season clearly favoring glitzy fight choreography and thick comic lore over true development of its main characters, the second season again failed to give its central hero, Finn Jones’ Danny Rand, very much to do. After “The Defenders” ultimately shrunk the Iron Fist to a mere MacGuffin for the plot following his dismal first season, and “Luke Cage” Season Two lent the character a few more points towards becoming an enjoyable character, I saw some hope in Season Two to bring the character to greater potential. Despite being a far-less-whiny, self-proclaimed protector of his homeland, the show still felt like it didn’t know exactly what to do with the character yet. As he abandoned his billionaire businessman role in favor of a quiet life with Jessica Henwick’s far-more-intriguing Colleen Wing, his morals as a holistic protector shifted as he became too eager to become the savior vigilante New York truly needs. With that, as his motivations for why he remains the Iron Fist changing constantly throughout the season, nothing really gave the audience a clear purpose to see Danny’s story through to the end.

Overall, even as increasingly amplified fight sequences and a superior supporting cast held prominence this season, “Marvel’s Iron Fist” remains the weakest link of the Marvel/Netflix repertoire. As its unlikeable protagonist continues to struggle to find his role among his fellow street-level heroes, the mythology surrounding the title character has slowly become more and more irrelevant. Even with a new direction, as the second season leaned into its comic-book lore and sent up a mildly-coherent duel of fates, the show still has plenty of kinks to work out. In the meantime, someone please get Netflix to develop a “Daughters of the Dragon” mini-series with Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing and Simone Missick’s Misty Knight!

Season Two of “Marvel’s Iron Fist” is now available to stream on Netflix. You can read my review of the first season here

 

Poster Courtesy of Netflix and Marvel Television

 

Uncovering the Finer Details at the CoAA Global Studies Exhibition

Photo by Patrick Magoon.

The selected works of a number of students in the College of Arts + Architecture were on full display as this year’s Global Studies Exhibition kicked off at the Storrs Gallery. Spanning the students’ experiences across a variety of media, from sketches and photographs to analytical diagrams and installations, the collective voyage of the students across a handful of countries was celebrated as the participants themselves dissected their individual travels.

Acting foremost as celebratory evidence of the knowledge collected by the students who traveled abroad as well as an invitation to those who still yearn to do so, the latest exhibition from the Global Studies department also sought to explore the social implications surrounding the subjects of each student’s travels. Just as the exhibition displayed architectural designs and artistic interpretations for such things as Roman bathhouses and revised Japanese tapestries, it also included subtle peeks into not only the people who created these things, but also those who occupy the spaces where these creations lie.

Even while I instantly gravitated towards the architectural drawings and analytical diagrams of the exhibition, myself, a fellow Architecture major, was eager to dissect the work for what it is, the work that adorned the opposite walls was also interlaced with their own unique portrayals of the students’ experiences abroad. As the drawings and diagrams showcased their own distinct portraits of occupation, scale figures from the drawings strolling alongside intricate building concepts situated among ancient Roman cathedrals, the work from the other side of the artistic spectrum gave another perspective from the various studies done by the students. As I listened to one photography student discuss their capture of daily activities (and fun, unexpected excursions) while abroad in Poland, the rich collection of polaroid photos pinned to the wall clued me in to another tangent of what studying abroad is truly about.

Photo by Patrick Magoon.

Rough, uncomplex and exposed, the selected photographs and sketches paralleled the measured architectural drawings of the exhibition with a silent beauty about them. Just as my eyes scanned the drafted works to pull away some semblance of design and inspiration, I found equal inspiration in the smaller, more intimate things students selected to share. From those layered, lucid polaroids to a collection of crude yet ornate charcoal portraits from another student, the works strived to reveal just what it means to study abroad. While there comes a time to craft professional work for portfolios or to see exceptional ideas realized on paper, there also comes a time to capture moments, experiences, people; the finer details that you can discover abroad.

As the new Director of Galleries Adam Justice drew our attention from the work on the wall to a duo of dance students set to perform, the Global Studies Exhibition concluded with an entrancing piece quite different from the mostly static works that filled the room. While the drawings and photographs worked to challenge and inspire me and others, the dance performance that came soon after teased something more. Two individuals locked in beautiful conflict, moving together as a singular organic form, the performance only furthered my belief that those finer details you grasp while abroad are the things that compile to create something incredibly profound.         

The College of Arts + Architecture Global Studies Exhibition will be on display at Storrs Gallery until September 28.   

 

 

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Mandy’ is a strikingly lovely callback to classic horror cinema

 

Two souls deep in love. A pack of monstrous cultists willed by intoxicated egos. Dreamscapes dripping neon across a scathed mountain topography. The pupils of all eyes dilated by adrenaline, hallucinogens and pure, unwavering rage. Muddled religion collided with the solemn, convicted prayers of a man shattered by loss. This is the peculiar chemical concoction that worked to craft the latest from director Panos Cosmatos and star Nicolas Cage in the cosmic horror fever dream of “Mandy.” Oozing with gripping performances, a palette of breathtaking visuals and a revenge premise driven to a violent edge, “Mandy” crept out of the shadows and quickly solidified itself as a stunning mix of modern aesthetic and classic horror cinema.

The year is 1983. Hidden away deep in the primal wilderness of the Shadow Mountains, logger Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) has created an idyllic existence alongside his beautifully deceptive partner Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Deep in love, no outside force could possibly penetrate the couple’s quiet life tucked beneath the mountains. The peaceful reality Red has made for himself shatters in an instant, as a vile band of cultists and otherworldly beasts come crashing through the glass facade of his haven. His love taken, his body wrung out and chained, his mild-manner temper shaken, Red now lives for a sole purpose — to hunt down the wretched things responsible and exact a swift and bloody revenge.

Among the realm of modern horror, which has held a steady existence of easily thwarted tropes and predictable thrills, there always seems to creep in a select few from the genre that seek to inject their unique vision into a singular, self-contained story. As the latest fall season kicks off mildly with genre films like “The Nun” and the upcoming “Halloween” continuation, the high-concept thriller to combat said franchise hopefuls arrived this month in the supernatural fever-dream of “Mandy.” In what promised to be not only a visceral tale of vengeance but also one of the most volcanic roles from actor Nicolas Cage, “Mandy” entered the playing field with the goal of becoming far beyond the latest slasher feature hidden among the Hollywood Hills.

Once I uncovered just what “Mandy” was, beneath its facade of what seemed a routine revenge premise, a number of factors drew me even closer to the distinct indie thriller. While I was never a true fan of star Nicolas Cage, though familiar to the volatile and unhinged performances across his vast career, something about the actor channeling a tempered-logger-turned-brutal-executioner promised to be the perfect addition to the supernatural revenge tale. It was also the overall look of the film, from director Panos Cosmatos and cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, that truly got me invested in witnessing just what “Mandy” was all about. What began as a contemplative portrait of two souls entranced in their simplistic life evolved steadily into a nightmarish picture of hell-scapes and the single-minded rage of a broken man.

While the performances might hallmark the majority of the seedy midnight thriller, as Cage’s eruptive transformation interplayed with a number of subtle to bizarre caricatures, the true potential of “Mandy” can be seen in its production. As up-and-coming filmmaker Panos Cosmatos returned to the horror scene, the same genre that stitched his 2010 debut “Beyond the Black Rainbow” together, the director worked to craft another distinct blend of genre with “Mandy.” While “Black Rainbow” sent up a bold mixture of science fiction paranoia with the classical tropes of slasher horror, Cosmatos’ latest sought to recall some of those same tropes, all while taking a massive dive into something completely unexpected. Backed by a promising slew of producers, including fantasy/horror alum Elijah Wood, and an intoxicating score from composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, “Mandy” strived to bring Cosmatos to the forefront.

Even as “Mandy” gave off an eerie subterranean vibe as it scuttled between its sadistic extremists and neon-tinted atmospherics, the cast of the film lent the project another wild card for its ambitious director to play. With such an enigmatic character as Nic Cage climbing aboard and his increasingly deranged persona continues to open his door to a plethora of off-kilter films, the lead role in logger Red Miller offered the actor the ideal chance to explore a wide range of emotion. As his quiet life — accompanied by his partner in Andrea Riseborough’s alluring Mandy — is quickly broken down, Cage’s once-hushed demeanor devolves into a manic frenzy of violent desperation. While the beginning of the film featured a less-than-zany Cage, focusing more on Riseborough’s mostly-static Mandy, once the man crossed paths with the sadistic members of a mysterious cult, the leash was let loose. Even while Cage’s fiery outbursts might be nothing new to fans of his often-comical exaggerations, watching his character dissolve into pure mayhem was surely a pleasure to watch unfold.

As Riseborough offered a far more tame performance when compared to her counterpart in Cage, her silent mysticism was opposed with even greater force by the central antagonist of the film. With English actor Linus Roache filling the shoes of a passionate zealot willed by a higher power, the deranged conception of “Mandy” was only further heightened by its enthusiastic supporting cast. As Roache’s Jeremiah Sand portrayed a crude mix between Charles Manson and Buffalo Bill from “The Silence of the Lambs,” he clashed his wretched idealism with Cage’s vicious desperation. While Roache’s cult leader might not get the payoff his fervent extremist deserved, his confrontation with Red was a smashing but unsurprising conclusion for the film; it was the leading radical and his followers that brought further enjoyment to the maniacal and psychedelic tone of “Mandy”.

The visuals of “Mandy,” which included everything from neon-drenched bloodshed and shadowy mountain scenery to dreamlike color mixing and innovative camera work, ran parallel to one of the film’s other major highlights. Just as Cosmatos sought to paint a nightmarish homage to classic horror behind the camera, he also worked to capture a striking auditory experience as well. With the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson delving into his latest layer of eerie, methodical soundscapes (after scoring such films as “Arrival” and “Sicario”), the artist managed to draw out the sadistic yet slow-burning feeling of “Mandy” through a superb mix of moody atmospherics and wailing metal rock. Resulting in surely one of the most exhilarating scores I’ve heard all year, one of Jóhannsson’s last works could likely be his most timely.

Overall, the sophomore piece of filmmaker Panos Cosmatos’ “Mandy” made for a thrilling experience at the theater. Backed by not only a riveting musical score but an unflinching tale of passion, vengeance and the violent limits that lie between, the seedy thriller presented a visually-entrancing horror epic with a phenomenal set of characters. Even while some of its characterization might border the realm of stereotype and certain splashes of its stimuli might not fit the film to perfection, “Mandy” brought yet another bold independent horror effort to the forefront of my attention. Promising plenty more than simply the latest in a long line of zany Nic Cage-starring features, “Mandy” is the psychedelic revenge romp of the fall season.

 

Poster Courtesy of RLJE Films

 

‘Mandy’ is now playing in select theaters in Charlotte.

Legion M President Jeff Annison talks pioneering media company and new project ‘Mandy’

Photo courtesy of Legion M

Marking the rise of a fascinating new business model with the potential to change Hollywood forever, entertainment company Legion M has created one of the world’s first fan-owned media platforms. Allowing fans all over the world to invest in a broad slate of film, television and digital content, the company strives to make the audience the number one priority. Here to break down just what Legion M is all about, the Niner Times got a chance to speak to co-founder and president Jeff Annison about the company and its goals. Also giving us the latest on their most recent investment, the supernatural thriller “Mandy,” Jeff Annison spills the beans on why Legion M could be the next revolutionary startup.

Legion M introduces one of the world’s first entertainment companies owned and invested in by fans. Fans are able to get involved with and even own stock of the company just by investing as little as $100. That money is then pooled together to go into a variety of diverse projects. How did a company where people all over the world can easily invest in original content come to fruition? How is a company like that even possible?

While there’s plenty of business talk and logistics that go into how Legion M was formed, the primary goal of the company is to give fans a say in what Legion M does. We wanted to create a media company made up of people who are emotionally invested in the process of content creation. Under new rules enabled by the JOBS Act, fans can now invest as little as $100 to own a piece of the company. While that process always comes with its risks, there is reward in the ideas and projects Legion M seeks to endorse. Investing in the company is only half of it, however. Legion M has always strived towards creating an authentic grassroots buzz for the projects they’re involved in. As we partner with more and more creators, we can provide marketing, development, financial backing and most importantly fan engagement.

Risk is always a major factor when investing in something like this. One often has to weigh the risk vs. reward before putting money into a project or company. Legion M is made possible by new rules entitled in the JOBS Act, a process called equity crowdfunding. How is Legion M changing the game in the ways the general public can invest in projects?

Equity crowdfunding is all about allowing the general public to invest in pre-IPO startups like ours. Prior to the JOBS Act, most of the population was forbidden from investing in startup companies. Unless you had a net worth north of $1 million or an annual salary of more than $200K, you were excluded. Now, even with some limitations here and there, the JOBS Act promises that all of us can have the chance to invest like the 1%. Of course, you have to know the risks of investing in something like a company. We ourselves took a risk on investing in our latest project “Mandy,” which we entered early at the script phase. That being said, the risk and reward of investing in something like Legion M is never guaranteed. While most startups fail, those that succeed often change the world. That is what we seek to do with Legion M.    

You work with a number of people besides the fans on Legion M and its projects. From co-founder and CEO Paul Scanlan to a variety of diverse production companies, Legion M has grown tremendously since 2016. How has your past experience working as an entrepreneur influenced how Legion M came to be?

Legion M marks the third company I’ve started with Paul Scanlan. In 1999, we launched MobiTV, one of the pioneers of digital streaming on mobile devices. We ended up winning an Emmy for Technical Achievement in Advancing Television for our work on that project. From that experience, and the ones that followed, I’ve learned that one of the most essential parts of being an entrepreneur is a willingness to take risks. I’ve also learned that most startups fail, as I said. Even the likes of Google, Tesla and Disney all took risks when building their companies. Investing is already a risk vs. reward business, but there was no question in the prospects of what Legion M could become.

After launching two years ago, the company has amassed nearly $5 million with an ever-growing number of fan investors. Did you ever see Legion M taking off like this? What are some of the major goals you have for Legion M as it continues to grow?

One of our main goals can be found right in our logo. The “M” with a line over it is the Roman numeral for one million. Our “master plan” so to speak is to become one of the most influential companies in Hollywood, with over one million shareholders backing what we do and what we produce. If we can achieve that, we’ll have hundreds of millions of dollars to develop new projects, with over a million people who have contributed to the process. Another goal of ours is to “open the gates of Hollywood” to the fans, giving them the opportunity to spearhead some ambitious projects in the future.   

Legion M resides on somewhat of a different playing field as Hollywood. The majority of major Hollywood-produced entertainment, be it film or television, is run by massive conglomerates. Legion M on the other hand strives towards prioritizing individuals who are passionate about budding projects. How has Legion M worked to differentiate itself from the Hollywood formula of content creation?

Hollywood is a notoriously difficult place to traverse in the entertainment business. What we find in content creation, and the investment process as well, is that every project is seeking an audience. Putting the fans at the forefront, we can back a wide variety of bold and inventive projects from some of the most promising creators out there. Among Hollywood, which is such a massive world to step into, there are limitations along with those huge companies. In essence, it’s a “hit-driven” enterprise, where the lines are drawn between the artistic side of filmmaking and the business side of entertainment. That can be a complicated street to walk down.  

Poster Courtesy of RLJE Films

After working on such films as “Colossal” with Anne Hathaway and “Bad Samaritan” with David Tennant,  the company’s latest investment finds itself in the seedy, 1980s revenge tale of “Mandy,” starring THE Nicolas Cage. How did you come across this project and what drew you towards it personally?

“Mandy” is not a film for everyone. It’s dark, visceral, outlandish, but there’s plenty of fantastic potential there. It comes from independent director Panos Cosmatos, who has made a name for himself as the Stanley Kubrick of our time with his startling visual style. At Legion M, we love the idea of supporting up-and-coming filmmakers like Panos, and giving them the chance to showcase their unique talents on-screen. With “Mandy,” which stars such an enigmatic character as Nic Cage, the potential of the director mixed with what Cage could convey as an actor was very promising. Toss in a heavy metal score from the late composer Jóhann Jóhannson and there’s something distinct there.   

Films like “Mandy” have the tendency to garner substantial cult followings after their release. “Mandy” has already received plenty of buzz at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. While smaller, more obscure films like this often don’t see much return at the box office, they still have life among the fans. Do you see “Mandy” becoming a cult classic? What do you hope people take away from the film?

As I said, there’s definitely something special about what the filmmakers behind “Mandy” have crafted. Aside from its great cast in Nic Cage, Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache, the film has the obscure, sensational aesthetic of what we like to call a “midnight” movie. From an investment standpoint, “Mandy” has a lot of potential to gain a following from not just its premise, but the film’s riveting 1980s-infused soundtrack as well. While we can’t possibly predict how the general public will receive the film next week, we hope the passion behind the project will resonate with the fans who brought the film to light in the first place.  

Legion M continues to grow in the content it provides, from major releases like “Colossal” and “Mandy” to digital content with fellow creators Kevin Smith and Stan Lee. How has Legion M worked to broaden their reach into a larger variety of projects?

Discovering creators like Panos Cosmatos, as well as working alongside more-established names like Kevin Smith and Stan Lee, of course contributes greatly to broadening Legion M’s horizon. Support from our fans and the passionate audiences that continue to engage with us also goes a long way towards bringing more and more projects to our door. “Mandy” is just the latest vastly-imaginative and highly-promising project we’ve invested in, and there’s plenty more to come.     

“Mandy” hits select Charlotte-area theaters Sept. 13. You can get tickets to a special one-night only screening for the film here

You can learn more about Legion M and how to get involved here.

 

TV REVIEW: ‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’ Season 2 expands the riveting, self-aware world of Harlem’s hero

 

With the next Marvel/Netflix collaboration rolling out this month in the second season of “Marvel’s Iron Fist,” it was about time I finally checked back into Harlem to give my thoughts on the other small-screen hero to return this summer. As the bulletproof “Hero of Harlem” Luke Cage stepped back into the spotlight, the sophomore season of the Netflix series successfully expanded upon what made his 2016 debut such a stellar and thoroughly-investing outing. From its conflicted and “woke” central hero to the show’s distinct New York atmosphere, “Marvel’s Luke Cage shattered any fears of the infamous “sophomore slump.”

After clearing his name as a falsely-accused convict, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) has become the face of a neighborhood still plagued by violence and crime. As a media-obsessed society flourishes within Harlem, Cage has amassed far more attention from the world than he ever wanted before. Following the death of her volatile cousin Cornell, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) maintains a fierce grasp on Harlem, her fingers in every avenue of the city’s seedy underworld. While the drug-and-gun game sours under Mariah’s hand, her loyal companion “Shades” (Theo Rossi) doing much of the dirty work, a new threat arises in John “Bushmaster” McIver (Mustafa Shakir). An American with Jamaican blood, fueled by vengeance towards Mariah, McIver comes toe-to-toe with Cage as a startling new war sparks on the streets of New York. Despite that, trade wars and adversaries tough as iron are the least of Luke Cage’s problems.

With each of Netflix’s quartet of small-screen Marvel heroes now introduced, their individual stories culminating in last summer’s “The Defenders,” the aftermath of the team-up event notched each hero into unique spots among their street-level environments. As things get even more complex and complicated for the big-league heroes like the Avengers, the faces that lie at the heart of the individual Marvel/Netflix series have come into their own issues as their stories continue to unfold. As the second season of “Jessica Jonesunveiled further troubles for the super-strong private eye, and this month’s “Iron Fistseeks to paint the naive warrior of Danny Rand as a more compelling hero than before, it’s the weathered and wicked streets Luke Cage occupies that I found myself this time. As the legacy of the “bulletproof black man” thrives and shakes things up, the second season of “Luke Cageis where the central hero-for-hire really hits his beat.

Much like the debut seasons of “Daredevil, “Jessica Jones and even “Iron Fist,” I enjoyed the first outing of Luke Cage aka Power Man even amid its subtle pitfalls. Luckily for the so-called “Hero of Harlem,” Marvel and creator Cheo Hodari Coker managed to craft a tale equally as riveting and distinct in tone as Netflix’s first dive into superhero affairs with “Daredevil.” As the series moved out of Daredevil’s territory of Hell’s Kitchen and into the culturally-vibrant streets of Harlem, it found its focus in a hero that breathed and bled the injustices and anxieties of the ever-divided world we occupy today. That hero, manifested in Mike Colter’s moral-driven, headstrong Luke Cage, instantly became a figure to rally behind as his first season worked to give meaning to his vital cause in Harlem.

As his cause to protect Harlem and its people from harm flowed into both “The Defendersand Season 2 of his eponymous series, the character of Luke Cage was peeled away even further as his life became increasingly complicated. While Season 1 of “Luke Cagesought to introduce us to both the power set and the emotional state of Cage as he strived to reclaim his innocence, the second season saw the hero battling with even greater internal forces than he ever imagined. From familial struggles (accompanied by a phenomenal performance by the late Reg E. Cathey as Cage’s father) to his own morally-converging paths towards justice in Harlem, Season 2 looked to pitch its indestructible hero against his greatest fight yet. Toss in the ever-fluctuating scales of power among Harlem’s most vile players, and you’ve got a season full of startling twists and bittersweet outcomes.

While Marvel and Coker distinguished “Luke Cagein a number of ways, from its seething, culturally-infused narrative to its emphasis on capturing the music scene of Harlem, the first two seasons of the series found much of its appeal in its performances. Just as the show’s sophomore season expanded upon the rich culture of Harlem’s people, it also proved that its main and supporting cast are what really give the series its style. As we see Colter’s bulletproof savior struggle with his true purpose in Harlem, we also see the other side of a number of characters in the show. From the equally-determined detective in Simone Missick’s Misty Knight to the emotionally-unstable gangster of Theo Rossi’s “Shades,” the swagger that once shielded the supporting characters of the show was broken down to reveal just what motivates each persona that runs across Colter’s central hero.

With other great performances running parallel to Colter’s, like Luke’s pastor-father in Reg E. Cathey’s James Lucas, much of the season’s focus tilted towards detailing the affairs of its central antagonists. As the scales of power and justice shifted as villain “Bushmaster” McIver entered the playing field, the dynamic between the revenge-seeking Jamaican and the queen of Harlem in Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard became just as vital to the season’s narrative as Luke Cage’s own journey. With the season detailing Mustafa Shakir’s haunting manifestation into a man built from the rebellion of his homeland, the newcomer to the series proved to be as vicious and stone-cold a villain as last season’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali). As he collided with Woodard’s callous Mariah Dillard, the two feuded over their destructive past and familial issues. Matched with their desire to manipulate Cage to their will, the villain and villainess of this season gave Season 2 the proper nerve it needed to elevate the story to unexpected heights.

The entrance of John “Bushmaster” McIver wasn’t the only factor that bled into one of the season’s essential themes. As the season continued its exploration of Luke Cage’s moral code in protecting Harlem, and his subsequent denial of said code to maintain order, it also focused primarily on the muddled relationship between Cage and his estranged father. As Reg E. Cathey’s hard-edged wisdom as James Lucas clashed with Cage’s stubborn ideals of “heroism,” their steady reconciliation throughout the season fueled its focal point of family. Paralleled with not only Bushmaster’s reclamation of his birthright, but Mariah’s complicated bond with her daughter (Gabrielle Dennis) as well, the theme of family became even more prevalent than it was in Season 1.

Overall, as Season 2 of “Marvel’s Luke Cageraised the stakes on Luke Cage’s ever-burdening struggle to keep Harlem safe, the continued story of Harlem’s hero and the diverse and deadly realm in which he operates managed to send up a gripping second outing. As it revealed more and more about its central and supporting characters, from their shifting moral agendas to their violent ultimatums, the second season elegantly glided past the feared sophomore slump a number of shows tend to face. While the second seasons of “Daredeviland “Jessica Jones faced a handful of missteps in both story and pacing, comparatively, “Luke Cagemanaged to maintain the distinct tone of its debut season, all while crafting a dynamic narrative of reclamation, revenge and above all, reputation.

You can stream Seasons 1 and 2 of “Marvel’s Luke Cage” now on Netflix. “Marvel’s Iron Fist” returns for its second season Friday.  

 

Poster courtesy of Marvel Entertainment and Netflix

Snapping into the New Year with the Gold Rush Outdoor Movie

Students watch “Avengers: Infinity War” in Jerry Richardson Stadium. Photo courtesy of Nikolai Mather.

Easily one of the biggest hits this summer at theaters across the globe, Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” was the obvious choice to headline this year’s Gold Rush Outdoor Movie Night, presented by Campus Activities Board (CAB). For a number of reasons, this jam-packed superhero goliath offered up just the right amount of angst, astonishment and bittersweet anticipation to parallel the dawn of a new semester for Charlotte students. While its premise might stray far from the anxieties and hopes we find here on campus, as it sees the superhero team battling the likes of radical despot Thanos, who yearns to extinguish half the universe, the first week of class has concluded in epic fashion.

By this time, I’m sure, there are only a rare few who have yet to witness the monumental cataclysm that resulted from one of this year’s most devastating films. As it swiftly took over the box office, the nineteenth feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe rolled into theaters this April with the intent of reshaping the billion-dollar franchise as we know it. Set with the largest cast of characters in any superhero film ever and a slew of surprising narrative twists along the way, the latest “Avengers” chapter quickly manifested into the epitome of game-changing summer blockbusters. Even after seeing the film two times already, I was certainly eager to experience it once more.

If I recall, the last time I ventured to Jerry Richardson Stadium for a CAB event, the just-as-substantial mammoth of a superhero film in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” was splayed across the massive screen just above the football field. As I sat amongst mostly all strangers, myself a naive freshman at the time, I settled atop the artificial turf and arched my neck as I awaited the “Avengers”-esque hero vs. hero face-off to play out. Leaving just as shell-shocked as I had been the first time I’d seen the film, this time with a surge of sporadic opinions spewing from the surrounding crowd of students and Marvel fans alike, I departed from the stadium that night in an excited silence.

The emotional events of “Civil War” some two years ago, however, were somewhat pale in comparison to the earth-shattering premise of this year’s “Infinity War.” As I entered the stadium once more, intoxicated by anticipation and the hope of relinquishing the anxieties of a budding semester, I found myself drawing an intriguing parallel between the colossal blockbuster and the new year of academia. Traveling this time amongst good friends, classmates who have shared the stresses of a complex major here at Charlotte, I saw the film as something beyond the grand-scale superhero epic it presented. As it pitched a story of desperate survival, unexpected consequences, and a slice of hope on the horizon, the film became a peculiar metaphor for the semester ahead.

While I didn’t come here to review the film, as others have done that for Niner Times already, I uncovered a unique melancholy watching it again on the first week of class. Beginning my junior year, it would seem that I have entered a particularly vital time in my college career, a sort of crossroads where the decisions I make now could shape where I go in the coming future. As my studies become increasingly more complicated and fascinating than before, the anxieties of the school year have been mixed with a subtle hopefulness of what might come next. Be it a job at the highest-regarded firm in Charlotte or some other bold aspiration, I feel that I’ve arrived at the most exciting, and nerve-wracking, time of my college existence.

While I won’t go so far as calling it the endgame, at the risk of sounding almost morbid, the disquieting suspense of the future is what fuels not only the plot of “Avengers: Infinity War,” but my own personal aspirations as well. As the Marvel powerhouse is very much a precursor to 2019’s untitled “Avengers 4,” this emerging semester is in itself a precursor to unexpected things set to come. Even as the film, a fantasy of titans battling adversity amid a swift and shocking turn of events, might very well lay apart from our simple reality, the struggles at its center are not unlike our own. Albeit being far less dramatic than the demise of half the universe, both the anxieties and inherent optimism within “Infinity War” in many ways mirror that of the upcoming semester.

Despite the somewhat-contrived metaphor I sought to lay out from the night, returning to the Jerry Richardson Stadium to watch “Avengers: Infinity War” was an enjoyable experience nonetheless. While my mind still sprawled to the coming semester, the fascinating mix of excitement and dread imbued in the superhero fantasy lent the night even more significance than simply watching a movie in a field. Perhaps it was CAB’s sole concern to let students enjoy a great film in the company of friends, but beyond that, maybe something more.

Photo courtesy of Nikolai Mather.

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ soars with a well-rounded, light sequel amid dark times

Mild Spoilers for “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Avengers: Infinity War” will be discussed.

Acting as the first film to follow the drastic events of April’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” the second solo outing for Marvel’s minuscule hero soared into theaters this summer. Seeking to pitch a far more light-hearted adventure, the sequel to 2015’s “Ant-Man” tossed its characters into yet another enthralling heist, all while introducing fans to the franchise’s newest female hero. While its low-stakes premise might not hold nearly as much emotional weight as April’s massive team-up effort, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” still managed to send up an exciting and hilarious team-up of its own.

Following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) grapples with the consequences of revealing his superhero persona Ant-Man to the world. As he serves a two-year sentence of house arrest, he strives to take care of his daughter Cassie, reluctant to don the suit again. After Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) reemerge from hiding, however, they enlist Lang to help find Hope’s mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) within the mysterious Quantum Realm. As new enemies and old allies seek to stand in their way, Lang must team up with Hope as Ant-Man and the Wasp to ensure Janet’s return.
Even with anticipation on the rise for the future heavy-hitters of its ever-growing franchise, like next Spring’s “Captain Marvel” and the yet-untitled “Avengers 4,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe notched its twentieth feature film in this summer’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” Seeking to continue the story of con-man-turned-superhero Scott Lang set by 2015’s “Ant-Man,” director Peyton Reed set out to not only delve further into the complicated new life of Paul Rudd’s mini-hero but also to introduce us to one of the MCU’s latest female badasses. While returning to the world of “Ant-Man” seemed pale in comparison to speculating what occurs after the latest “Avengers” film, Reed managed to fish fans back in with the simple promise of a light-hearted story amid dark times.

While 2015’s “Ant-Man” was far from the best the MCU had to offer in their big-screen outings — following up massive stand-outs in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” the franchise’s first true dive into the heist genre did ultimately pay off in the tiny hero’s favor. As the film detailed the exploits of inventor Hank Pym and his reluctance to make “The Ant-Man” a tool for a higher power, it also gave us a promising debut for actor Paul Rudd within the superhero genre. With his unique mix of melancholic charm and naivety lending him to become more than simply a minuscule comic relief, we found in Scott Lang a criminal molded by the principles of both fatherhood and newfound purpose. Even as the film dredged into a similar power struggle to 2008’s “Iron Man,” the protagonist in Rudd’s conflicted hero and his allies proved to be something worth exploring more of.

Thus came “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” the highly-anticipated follow-up to one of Marvel’s smallest adventures. Making for possibly one of their best sequels yet, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” set out to do exactly what a compelling sequel should do. As it blended its shrinking action set-pieces with a worthy narrative of uncovering the past, the film used the charm and inventive nature of its predecessor to craft a fun, quick and cunning small-scale superhero effort. With more character development for Lang, Pym and Evangeline Lilly’s superb Hope van Dyne, and a driven director in Reed, the sequel succeeded where it counted most.

With such a small-scale story, the likes of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” surpassing a film as grand and dramatic as April’s”Avengers: Infinity War” was never in the headlights of director Peyton Reed and the other filmmakers behind the sequel. Yes, while crafting a great film that would make the studio loads of cash was surely on the radar, the film never intended on outdoing the earth-shattering ramifications of the April release. Instead, it worked to run parallel, sewing together the threads left open from the 2015 original and gearing towards the greater — and frighteningly unexpected — threat ahead. That, I think, was what made “Ant-Man and the Wasp” so powerful, similar to the other solo MCU films surrounding the bigger players of the franchise. That too played into what makes Ant-Man such a compelling hero.

While I won’t spend this whole review comparing this film to the latest “Avengers,” due to the fact that they are radically different films, the fact that “Ant-Man and the Wasp” runs parallel to the events of “Infinity War” made its lightweight premise that much more interesting. As we found Scott Lang reeling after the events of Marvel’s last showcase in “Captain America: Civil War,” we saw how his relationship with daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) has shifted since. Even with his life in danger and his identity as the Ant-Man now revealed to the world, his loyalties lie ever-so-tethered to his family. As we see the same conflict in Hank Pym and his own daughter Hope, the unexpected consequences of “Infinity War” managed to give this film its own emotional edge, begging the question: Is saving your family worth it when an untimely end lies at the horizon?

Despite this, the film paid much of its attention to staying oblivious to the effects of “Infinity War,” working instead to craft a compelling, low-stakes adventure free from the dread of the latter. As its plot sent Lang and Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne on a desperate search for her mother Janet, the film quickly developed an even greater emotional depth than the first. As Rudd’s naive hero melded with both his daughter and new ally Hope, as he struggled to keep his life as a father and a partner in line, Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym battled his own demons from the first film. With the search for his wife Janet leading him into the affairs of former partner Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), we saw more of Pym’s past and his reluctance to resurface it. We also saw how the scientist’s past aligned with the destruction (and creation) of the film’s antagonist in Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost. Equally fueled by the grim outcomes of her own past, John-Kamen gave the film another ounce of emotion atop the familial struggle at its center.

Overall, while the action sequences in the latest minuscule chapter might not leave a lasting mark on the MCU as a whole, the charm and emotional depth at the heart of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” put it in a unique spot alongside the other Marvel releases of 2018. As February’s “Black Panther” introduced us to a culturally-significant and vastly-compelling story of revolution and royalty, and April’s grand team-up drew a startling shadow over the franchise, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” lent its story to explore a lighter side of things. Still teeming with a close-knit internal struggle between its main characters, the sequel made for an entertaining, well-rounded palette cleanser with its own emotional significance.

 

Poster Courtesy of Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ sets the bar even higher for one of Hollywood’s most thrilling franchises

With director Christopher McQuarrie and actor Tom Cruise returning for more nerve-wracking action and phenomenal storytelling, the sixth chapter in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise has arrived. Even as its leading man nears his 60’s, and the breath-taking stunts of the series couldn’t possibly get any more intense, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” didn’t pull any punches as it soared to surpass even the franchise’s best installments. While its premise tilted once more to the consequences of nuclear weaponry, “Fallout” presented a character-focused, action-heavy chapter that set the bar even higher for modern action blockbusters.

Two years after the capture of terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the remains of the criminal organization “The Syndicate” have reformed into a new group known as “The Apostles.” When Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames) are tasked with intercepting the sale of three plutonium cores to the group, things take a turn when the mission goes awry. Leaving the plutonium in the wind, the CIA brings in elite operative August Walker (Henry Cavill) to team up with the IMF and locate the cores. Crossing paths with deadly assassins, shifting agendas and a beautiful woman known as the White Widow, Ethan and his team must race against the clock to stop a nuclear plot from coming to fruition. With Lane reemerging to stand in Hunt’s way, former allies like Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) must take matters into their own hands to soften the fallout set to arrive.

As far as major Hollywood film franchises go, the “Mission: Impossible” films easily lie at the top tier of enduring action filmmaking. With the sixth chapter in theaters now, the series has matured from the run-of-the-mill espionage thriller it was back in 1996 to a fascinating introspective into the limits of its leading man. As star Tom Cruise (now 56 years old) continues to push himself, plunging his character in IMF agent Ethan Hunt to the brink of his physical and psychological demands, the spy franchise has only gotten better and better. With 2015’s “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” making for one of the franchise’s best, as it propelled a compelling antagonist and an even more compelling double agent at Hunt’s side, this summer’s “Fallout” only furthered what made “Rogue Nation” such a sensational entry.

With “Rogue Nation” director Christopher McQuarrie returning for his second installment, the follow-up of “Fallout” held a number of familiar traits to McQuarrie’s debut in the franchise back in 2015. As the capture of antagonist Solomon Lane bled into the affairs of Ethan Hunt and his team this time around, the plot wasn’t the only familiar element to carry over from “Rogue Nation.” While the franchise has harbored a prestigious line-up of filmmakers in its past, from Brian De Palma to J.J. Abrams, the tone and directing style between the series’ latest two entries has felt the most consistent. Even with countless action set-pieces lining its script, as they always have, writer-director McQuarrie has perhaps done the most to push the franchise to new storytelling heights.

While there still remains the bare bones of the franchise, which continually pit top agent Hunt against every deadly mission known to man, “Rogue Nation” and the latest “Fallout” have especially worked to propel intriguing character-driven stories, teeming with unique characteristics of its filmmaker. From the subtle nuances between characters to the dialogue-free scenes that play out throughout the film, McQuarrie has cemented his name in the franchise’s legacy as it strives further to balance immense action with daring spy narratives. As “Fallout” further delved into what keeps Ethan Hunt going, from the vendettas of his past to the people he yearns to protect, McQuarrie sent up a premise tripping with surprises, and phenomenal filmmaking, around every dark corner.

As the film’s plot promised one of Hunt’s greatest feats yet, the cast of “Fallout” injected a great degree of emotion and fearlessness into their roles. While no particular performance really stood out to me this time around, as Cruise, Pegg and Rhames sent up their respective blends of machismo and wit, the returning faces of double agent Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust and Harris’ slithering terrorist in Solomon Lane made for some of the film’s more noticeable character developments. As far as the new players of the franchise go, Henry Cavill and the ever-mesmerizing Angela Bassett added the blunt edge to the chapter they promised from the trailers. While Cruise and Company scraped along on their wit, Cavill came crashing in with enough unyielding charm (that mustache though!) to match the film’s leading agent.

Even while the heart-stopping stunts of this installment might not match some of the best in the franchise, the storytelling and characters at the heart of the latest “Mission: Impossible” were enough to leave me eager for the next chapter. As “Fallout” expanded on the seeds director Christopher McQuarrie planted in “Rogue Nation,” the lengths at which Tom Cruise’s leading spy will go to save the world have yet to hit their limit. With another riveting entry in “Fallout,” the “M:I” franchise could be inching towards its end as Hunt and his team finally find resolution; before that, however, the next mission awaits.

 

Poster Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ is now in theaters everywhere.

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ blurs the line between stylish, tense filmmaking and muddled machismo

 

“This is a land of wolves now.”

The words of Benicio Del Toro’s shadowy operative Alejandro Gillick echoed along the deadly new battleground on which this summer’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” has found itself. The sequel to 2015’s visceral, slow-burning thriller “Sicario,” the violent ambitions of the mysterious contact that once crossed paths with Emily Blunt’s wide-eyed recruit Kate Macer have evolved further in a fiery voyage towards revenge and retaliation. As “Day of the Soldado” peeked behind the curtain of not only Del Toro’s mercenary, but also the corrupt inklings of U.S. and Mexican relations, the sequel found solace in brutal violence, hoping to scratch at some semblance of intriguing humanity.

When a series of suicide bombings by Islamic insurgents suddenly find their way onto American soil, the United States government enlists the help of agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to investigate. When it is discovered that Mexican drug cartels are suspected of transporting these terrorists across the border, Graver seeks the aid of black operative Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro) to ignite a war between the neighboring cartels of the country. Staging the kidnapping of the daughter (Isabela Moner) of cartel kingpin Carlos Reyes in an attempt to converge the cartels, Graver, Gillick and their team soon spark retaliation from the Mexican federal police. As alliances quickly shift, Gillick finds himself desperate to return the girl to safety, all while chaos breaks loose on a volatile hellscape without rules.

While I was somewhat hesitant to return to the world of “Sicario,” especially after the first film never truly cemented itself to me as a “classic,” something about venturing back onto the fascinating landscape of the Mexican cartels drew me into “Day of the Soldado.” While the first film in 2015’s solemn and cinematic “Sicario” painted a subtle feud between the American and Mexican governments, as Emily Blunt’s eager FBI recruit stumbled onto a larger mystery afoot, its sequel escalated the battle in a number of interesting ways. As the focus of the film centered on Benicio Del Toro’s silent hitman from the first film, as well as Josh Brolin’s head-strong agent in charge, “Day of the Soldado” sought to traverse a set of story elements that somewhat expanded on the issues teased at in its predecessor.

As the first film set its focus on the drug-fueled economics that lie at the border, one of the most interesting things I found in “Day of the Soldado” was the other business that contributes to the conflicted relations between the U.S. and its neighbor to the south. Shifting from narcotics to people, the film began with a startling showcase of the terrorism threat that skims the thin border between America and the rest of the world. As radical insurgents slip through the border and onto our doorsteps, the prologue to the film’s central story presented a compelling focal point for it to delve into those who make their living moving people.

Even while it never took that sophisticated of an emphasis on said business, “Day of the Soldado” still managed to offer a riveting premise on its own. As the motivations of both Del Toro and Brolin’s leads continued to manifest, tasked with pitting the cartels against each other over the life of a young girl, the film did manage to scratch at the surface of both the political and more personal sides of war. As we found Del Toro’s secretive mercenary carving out a personal vendetta against the cartels, we also saw how Brolin and his own operation swayed in and outside of the law. At the heart of the sequel, amidst numerous gory reckonings in its runtime, was a single question — What has to be done to maintain order and truth in a lawless land?

Among the lawless, the film lent a number of viable performances that contributed to the film’s overall-enthralling premise. As Del Toro led the show with another devious yet compassionate performance as Gillick, his partner-in-crime Josh Brolin also sold an enjoyable return for his grizzled, laid-back soldier from the first film. Despite the absence of Emily Blunt’s engrossing lead from the first “Sicario,” the two men, for all their robust testosterone, offered the action-thriller worthy top billing. In what could be a subtle effort to replace Blunt’s emotive performance with another, newcomer Isabela Moner also lent something substantial to the film, as her captive cartel daughter sent up a mature parallel to the hard-edged personas of the leading men.

For all its amped-up cartel violence, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” managed to pitch an exciting follow-up to director Denis Villeneuve’s contemplative first film. What it lacked in cinematic flair and subtle atmospherics, it made up for with thorough performances and a thrilling screenplay from writer Taylor Sheridan. While it might not rival the original on a number of levels, “Day of the Soldado” worked more to tease at the potential for a dynamic trilogy, where the jarring bloodshed of the cartels is just one layer in a searing look at the corruption and betrayal that lies at the border.

 

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ is directed by Stefano Sollima, and written by Taylor Sheridan. It is now playing in theaters everywhere. 

 

Poster Courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Lionsgate