Friday, May 31, 2019

Fan edit review: "The Fallen Knight" edit of "The Last Jedi"

I've dabbled in fan edits of Star Wars films before, having watched the "Hal9000 edits" of the Prequels, Cloak of Deception, The Approaching Storm and Labyrinth of Evil. These were interesting as an exercise, but didn't change the fact that the Prequels have uninteresting narratives, clunky direction and confused performances.

I've said in many of my articles on The Last Jedi that I enjoy the Luke/Rey/Kylo plot, but don't find the Finn/Poe/Rose plot to be interesting. As such I recently went looking for a fan edit that removed that part from the film, and thus I found The Fallen Knight, by one Clark Zuckerberg.

The Fallen Knight removes the entire Canto Bight and Poe vs Holdo plots from the film, focusing the middle act entirely on Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren's interactions. Finn and Poe only really appear in the first and third acts, Rose and Holdo are reduced to minor characters, and DJ and Phasma don't appear at all. The sections with Rey, Luke and Kylo are my favourite parts of the film, so I was keen to see how a version of the film would play out with those parts uninterrupted by the narratives I didn't enjoy.

As of writing I've just watched The Fallen Knight, and overall I enjoyed it. Its cuts excise an entire 45 minutes from the otherwise two-and-a-half-hour film, and the briefer running time and change of pace are welcome. Focusing the middle act entirely on the Ahch-To island (with cutaways to Kylo aboard the Supremacy) makes Rey's story much more straightforward to follow, as I wasn't mentally jogging back and forth to remember what Rey was supposed to be up to. It's much easier to see how desperate she is to find someone else to save the Light side until she finally realises that she needs to take the lead herself. This is probably the greatest benefit of the edit.

That being said, the edit inevitably requires characters such as Rose and Holdo to appear without really explaining who they are. That's fine, but it emphasises that this cut is more like "edited highlights" for a viewer who has already seen the theatrical release than an entirely coherent narrative in all of its parts. It's also, as a result, less thematically rounded, as the disparate parts of the official film do reinforce each other; I just don't find them terribly interesting. Similarly, Finn and Poe no longer really have character arcs in the edit, which obviously isn't ideal in typical storytelling, but because I didn't really enjoy watching them in the official version it doesn't bother me too much.

In addition, partly due to its policy of removing humour, and partly due to the larger cuts, I did miss a few moments I enjoy in the film:
  • Part of the Poe-Hux exchange: "Can he hear me? He can?"
  • The controversial scene of Leia using the Force to survive in space
  • Luke tickling Rey's hand
  • "You're wrong!" "Maybe."
  • Luke reaching out to Leia through the Force
  • Finn fighting Phasma ("Let's go, chrome dome!" is a guilty pleasure)
  • Hux considering shooting Kylo in the throne room
  • Poe introducing himself to Rey
However, I understand that the editor made these for his personal satisfaction, so it's okay if I miss a few bits; I can always watch the theatrical version if I want to see them. The same goes for the film being a more thematically consistent experience with character arcs for all three protagonists; I'll just watch the official version for that. To be honest, I would rather that the opening bomber attack and the Crait battle were cut down, as I don't find either of them to be terribly engaging; I'm constantly waiting for Rey, Luke or Kylo to appear.

Purely in terms of pacing and content, while I enjoyed the much greater focus on those three characters, I would have retained the destruction of the Resistance bridge, the Leia in space scene, and the scene introducing Holdo. I'd maybe even retain the scene introducing Rose if it would fit, but perhaps then you'd have to retain Finn's attempted sacrifice too, and Rose saving him only works if they've spent time together. Nonetheless, I would have also retained, within the bounds of the edit, the hand tickle and Luke reaching out to Leia.

The edit also reinstates a bit of deleted material: Finn's conversation with Poe about the Resistance and the tears Luke sheds for Han, which nicely cuts to the shot of Leia sitting alone on the bridge. The Finn-Poe scene is useful for Finn, although it doesn't pay off much in the edit. It also makes Poe come across as unpleasantly arrogant ("I was saving the entire fleet"), which speaks to the film's wider problem with Poe's characterisation: it uses him to deconstruct the classic "shoot first, think later" hero, but does so in a way which makes him seem like a jerk rather than just a guy whose priorities are a bit muddled.

In a broader sense, by making the rapidity of Rey's character development more apparent, as well as by bringing Luke and Kylo's flashbacks closer together, I think the edit as a whole reinforces what a poisoned chalice Rian Johnson was handed by Abrams and Kasdan with The Force Awakens' cliffhanger ending: Rey reaching out to Luke, Finn in a coma. I almost wish he'd just jumped ahead in time and explained the resolutions to these in dialogue or even have left them to our imaginations. People complain that Johnson failed to make an adequate follow up to Abrams' film, but I would argue the reverse: that he was constrained by it, and he had to do double the work to be able to tell his own story with the characters because Abrams hadn't grown them in a substantial way, palming off the job of developing them to his successors; imagine if A New Hope ended before they attacked the Death Star. Frankly, despite how wobbly The Last Jedi is, and at times it's incredibly frustrating, dull or even cringeworthy, Johnson should probably be applauded for managing to do anything with these characters given how little Abrams handed him beyond their names, appearances and locations at the end of the previous film.

Regardless, The Fallen Knight was an enjoyable alternative way to watch The Last Jedi in a manner that appealed to my personal tastes in what I preferred in the film, and I'd recommend it to anyone who similarly wished that the Rey-Luke-Kylo plot proceeded without interruption. It's also a much quicker way to watch the film if you're in a rush before The Rise of Skywalker releases in December 2019...

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

"Avengers: Endgame"

Consider this to have the clickbait subtitle "Conclusion or Cop-Out?"

Spoiler warning obviously.

So allow me to pointlessly add my equally worthless opinion to the doubtless already-massive pile of material written about Avengers: Endgame on the internet. Why not?

1. A Broad Reaction 
Did I enjoy Avengers: Endgame? Ehh... not really. Does that mean I think it's a bad film? Also not really. I can see what it was going for and it may have even succeeded. I just didn't find it that entertaining.

2. What wasn't entertaining about it?
I found it to be a bit too long. Like with Infinity War, I didn't enjoy the mindless "let's all run at each other" battle at the end. Its primary focus was Iron Man, a character I haven't cared about for years. I thought the time travel plot device was unoriginal and seemed more like an excuse for the franchise to take a victory lap than the most dramatically satisfying way of resolving the plot. I also don't think the time travel rules were very well explained. I wished Captain Marvel had been in it more. I didn't find the endings of Thor's or Captain America's stories to be effective.

The time travel part is my biggest gripe. Obviously they wanted Infinity War to end with the incredibly dramatic point of the villain succeeding completely and half of the protagonists being destroyed. However, any resolution to this is going to seem like a giant "undo" button. So how can the film have consequences? By killing off Black Widow and Iron Man, sure, but really I think that's it. Of all the possible "undo" buttons I found time travel to be the most irritating, because surely once the characters have a time machine they can do anything.

In addition, I didn't find the premise of the characters running around in the past almost bumping into events from previous films, like Back to the Future II, to be very engaging. I feel like it's been done before, and so doing it in this finale seemed unambitious to me.

Yet perhaps what displeased me the most was that while time travel arguably allowed characters such as Iron Man and Thor to gain a little perspective, and that's an understandable use of a science-fiction premise, as a plot device it seems thematically feeble; in real life there aren't any do-overs like going back in time to reverse a disaster, and a meaningful story should, in my view, reflect this. In real life, generally, you can only try to cope and move on, something I feel like many of the characters ultimately couldn't do. This leads to what I think has to be the primary metric by which I measure the film's success.

3. To what extent do the main characters have effective arcs?
By main characters I mean the "original" six Avengers. The film seems to consider them to be its focus. Thanos is no longer undergoing character development, and I don't think any of the other characters who are most active in the plot, primarily War Machine, Rocket, Nebula and Ant-Man, do. I thought this was particularly a problem with Nebula, as the film gave her a lot of focus, and a lot of personal stakes in the story, but while her change from Guardians of the Galaxy to now is highly noticeable, I felt like there wasn't much payoff for her with what happened. Perhaps that's best left to James Gunn, but it does seem odd that the biggest opponent of several of the Guardians, ie Thanos, was defeated by the Avengers, not the Guardians. Anyway...

So I guess Hawkeye's primary motivation since Age of Ultron or so was that he wanted to protect his family – both his wife-and-kids family and those among the Avengers who were arguably been exploited by the other members (like Wanda in Civil War). When his family is destroyed, he goes on a murderous vigilante rampage against surviving criminals, considering it unjust that they lived while innocents died. In the end he rejoins the Avengers and through the power of time travel gets his family back, albeit losing Black Widow, one of his best friends. So I guess he learned that life involves some unfair sacrifices. Maybe I'm overthinking this and Hawkeye isn't really important.

Black Widow
Black Widow's motivation was, from Avengers at least, to make amends for unspecified dark deeds in her past in which she was a (seemingly) Russian assassin or similar. As such she poured herself into her role in this and, in the end, sacrificed herself for the greater good. So there's a decent character arc.

Bruce Banner/The Hulk
I can't remember what even happened in the Edward Norton Hulk film, but if we assume that isn't really canon and just focus on the Ruffalo incarnation of the character, his arc seems to have been to come to terms with the two sides of his nature, to find peace between the anger that was Hulk and the rationality that was Banner. I guess he achieved this by becoming Professor Hulk, but it all happens offscreen so it's not terribly satisfying from an audience standpoint. I honestly didn't mind that aspect, as it was nice to have a character who wasn't that conflicted, although at times it felt like the only reason for him being big and green was so that he could survive using the stones. So the film arguably concludes Banner's and Hulk's development, but not in a very visual or cinematic way.

Thor's whole deal, dating back to the very first of his films, was about being "worthy". He had to grow up and take responsibility. It felt like Thor: Ragnarok finally achieved this, with him and Loki putting aside their differences and Thor leading his people to a new home. As such, for most of Endgame, it's understandable that, after having half his people killed, losing his close friends and brother, and failing to properly avenge them, Thor would fall into depression. Many people, myself included, have been where Thor is: resorting to food, booze and entertainment to compensate for a feeling like life is meaningless. While it frustrated me that Infinity War seemed to undermine the bittersweet ending of Ragnarok (my favourite of the Marvel Phase Three films), at least Endgame actually followed through with consequences for this. It took a lot of effort and support from his friends and family to get past this. As such it was annoying that, at the end, Thor decided to give up the rule of New Asgard to Valkyrie (note that she doesn't get a say!) and then waltzes off to resume his life of adventure. Why? Doesn't this dump all of his character development in the bin? If Chris Hemsworth is finished with the character, couldn't he have just declared that he was going to spend the rest of his days rebuilding Asgard on Earth? While it would be fun to see him in the next Guardians film, I thought this final change undermined everything all over again. Other than that, Thor had a decent arc, but when it's reversed at the end it's hard to give the film much credit.

Captain America
Captain America's motivation is basically to "do the right thing". Ever since his first film he wanted to stand up for the weak and oppressed. In this film he continues to do that, leading the team and even running a support group for survivors of Thanos. He was a man out of time trying to help a struggling world. It's not really expected that Captain America will develop much. He's already such a good person, exemplified in this by him wielding Mjolnir, that he doesn't need to. Endgame tries to give him an arc by saying that he needs to stop always putting other people's interests ahead of his own. In the end he decides to go back in time and stay with Peggy rather than continuing to be Captain America. While I think the idea of "self-care" isn't a bad development for such a character, I do think the time travel plot device used at the end is wobbly in thematic terms, because in real life there aren't any do-overs. It seemed to have been set up that Steve could have found what he wanted with new relationships, particularly his friendship with Sam and his tentative relationship with Sharon, but Sam's barely in this and Sharon isn't at all. Even his friendship with Bucky has no real payoff. I suppose it's nice that he and Peggy got to be together after all, but to me it doesn't seem like there's anything thematically meaningfully or dramatically fulfilling about it. It's also weird that Peggy has no lines, basically being reduced to an object, the prize at the end of Steve's long struggle. To me, Captain America's story felt like the biggest cop-out, and it would have made more sense if he had died.

Iron Man
Tony Stark wanted to make the world a safer place. He needed to learn that he couldn't control everything, and to learn to let others into his life. While the films have at times backtracked along the path of his development, particularly with Age of Ultron almost completely undermining his character development in Iron Man 3, by and large the film does a good job of him growing beyond himself while doing the most he could to keep the people he cared about safe. In a dramatic sense he grew, finally settling down properly with Pepper and having a daughter, and having him give his life to save the world is a solid, effective ending for the flagship character of the franchise. Iron Man had a good arc; personally I just don't find his character that interesting anymore.

So this is why I feel like Endgame was a mixed bag, putting aside the gripes I outlined in part 2. I think it works as a big, messy comic book extravaganza, but given that it also sort of tries to carry itself as a drama for these six core characters I'm not sure it really succeeds for the "Big Three" in two out of three cases. At this stage I only really care about Captain Marvel and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe Doctor Strange. Then again, I'll be keen if, with the rights regained, the Marvel Cinematic Universe were to do Doctor Doom. Infinity War/Endgame was very big; I'd like things to get a bit tidier again now.

Monday, April 8, 2019

"Captain Marvel" and "Shazam!"

In the last three days I saw two superhero films: Marvel's Captain Marvel and DC's Captain Marvel, Shazam! My expectations for Captain Marvel were probably lower, perhaps because of that bit in the trailer in which she's flying through space shooting lasers everywhere, which doesn't actually happen until the end, and then only briefly. Perhaps I was also just exasperated by the stupid internet controversy. I was arguably more engaged by the trailer for Shazam!

However, I was engaged by both of them. Is that a boring stance to take?

Captain Marvel
What I liked:
I liked that Captain Marvel had a somewhat non-linear narrative. Carol Danvers starts the film as an alien soldier with limited memories. She only recovers these later. I thought this was a good way of breaking up the usual superhero origin story. It's comparable to how James Gunn handled Peter Quill's backstory in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.

I liked the lack (mostly) of straightforward villains. Talos the Skrull wasn't really a villain at all, and the Kree commander Yon-Rogg seems to see himself as Carol's mentor. I thought the relationship between Carol and Yon-Rogg could have been developed more, but regardless it was a huge relief when they didn't have a big fight at the end.

I enjoyed the performances too. I liked Brie Larson as Carol Danvers; she came across as what I thought it was reasonable that a soldier in her position would be. It was nice to see Samuel L. Jackson be able to do something other than show up and give motivational speeches in the Nick Fury role. Ben Mendehlson made a pointy-eared green alien sympathetic. I perhaps wish Jude Law had been given more, as I've said.

What I didn't like:
To me the biggest problem with the film was the lack of motivation it gave to the Kree Supreme Intelligence, and thus by extension to Yon-Rogg. It would have been interesting to know why the Supreme Intelligence was so desperate to dominate every species it encountered, and thus why it felt the need to wipe out the Skrulls for resisting its overlordship. For instance, does the Supreme Intelligence consider itself to be uniquely fit to rule living things? Some kind of clash of ideologies would have been appreciated there.

I can't say I noticed anything particularly remarkable about the direction or cinematography, but one hardly expects that with these films.

To conclude, Captain Marvel actually made me feel enthused about Avengers: Endgame, whereas Black Panther had the opposite effect on my interest in Infinity War. Oh, also, I chuckled at the bit in which Carol tries to communicate with "Star Force" or whatever because it sounded like Buzz Lightyear trying to get in touch with Star Command.

What I liked:
It's fun. The film really gets going when Zachary Levi appears as the titular superhero, whom I keep wanting to refer to as "Captain Marvel" because that's how I know him from old comic books. I think it's fair to say that his presence is much more light hearted than that of the kid version of Billy, but I suppose that's understandable; as the "adult" Shazam he feels more free and at ease.

I thought the humour worked pretty well at a number of points, particularly when Dr Sivana was giving his big speech and Shazam couldn't hear him. The film feels like an old-school action comedy, although with drama where appropriate. There was something quite sombre, I found, about Billy's determination to find his mother, when from an adult point of view, as an audience member, I could guess the inevitable revelation that his mother had abandoned him.

I also liked how much this incorporates the silly elements of the old "Shazam" stories. Not only do we see telepathic worm Mister Mind, but early on I was thinking, "I wish that bad guy who is a crocodile in a business suit was the kind of thing they'd do in this", and lo and behold several crocodile men made a cameo later in the film. Now they just need Mister Atom and I'll be happy.

Somehow I don't think they'll do Captain Nazi.

Similarly, it was nice to see more "Shazam family" characters, although I think there could have been more of a payoff for Freddie getting powers and Mary could have used a little more time. I think I would have preferred a neater, more old-school family with just Billy, Freddie and Mary but I haven't read the reboot comic from which this takes inspiration.

What I didn't like:
I thought the prologue and opening act were clumsy and badly-paced. I appreciated what was going on with setting up Sivana's backstory, but I felt like it was drawn out to the point of distraction. I was really waiting for Billy-Shazam to appear for the film to pick up, and when he did it did, appropriately enough.

I also thought the CGI for the Seven Sins was a bit cheap-looking.

Much like Captain Marvel, not much stood out to me visually or directorially in this film. Fair play again to David F. Sandberg after Annabelle: Creation, especially making a film with so many kids in the cast.

Comparing the two, however, it's interesting to note that kind of "gloss" the Marvel films have. Despite its silly premise, Shazam! feels, in many respects, more present and grounded than its science-fiction Marvel counterpart. Captain Marvel very much feels like a part of its franchise, while Shazam! feels more like a throwback film to twenty years ago. It even has Mark Strong playing the villain, which I'm pretty sure he was doing a lot about ten years ago.

Ultimately I enjoyed both films as pieces of "pulp" entertainment, I suppose. I think it goes to show what works in these superhero products: a sense of adventure and something to keep a viewer engaged; for me it was Carol's rediscovery of her past in Captain Marvel and Billy-Shazam's comic persona in Shazam!

I liked Us too. Maybe it's not such a bad time for Hollywood genre films at the moment. I guess I'll know for sure in Hindsight 2019.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Hindsight: A 2018 Cinematic Retrospective

I saw quite a few films of 2018 in 2018 itself, although I suspect I saw more non-2018 films. Maybe I should do a post about that instead.

Films I haven't seen yet but might in future
Early Man
I like Aardman, and the teaser I saw was kind of amusing, but I admit that I was put off when I saw in the full trailer that this was going to be a football movie with a claymation cave man facade over the top, and by the time I checked to see when it was coming out it turned out that it had already been released and left cinemas, so there's a good example of marketing gone wrong.

Isle of Dogs
I dunno about this one. I saw the trailer too many times before other films and it didn't grab me.

A Quiet Place
I just got this on blu-ray so I intend to watch it very soon.

Update: Hmm. It's stylish and well-made, but I found it to be a bit "Hollywood" in terms of plot and character, at least after the little kid was killed off at the beginning, which was a satisfyingly ballsy move for such an otherwise emotionally predictable film. Other elements, like the generic nuclear family, the difficult relationship between the dad and his teenage kids, and the self-sacrifice at the ending, were all somewhat safe. Supposedly the writer/director (who was in the US Office, which I've never seen) was inspired in relation to the anxiety of being a new parent or something – as if that's some groundbreaking subject matter. The final shot was pure cheese too, which I felt undermined the film's mood, but perhaps it was intentional. Emily Blunt's good in it, I suppose, but everyone expects her to be. As I say, a very solid film but perhaps too straight-laced for a weirdo like me.

Super Troopers 2
The original Super Troopers is a sort of 'cult if you were a teenage boy in the early 2000s' dumb comedy for which I have a certain affection. Apparently this sequel was crowdfunded, presumably by the same people now adults with disposable incomes. I doubt it even got a theatrical release over here.

Deadpool 2
I wanted to see this but it came out at the same time as Infinity War and Solo and something had to give, especially as I saw those two films with people interested to see them, while I didn't know about anyone who cared about Deadpool 2 who hadn't seen it already.

Bad Times at the El Royale
Apparently this is good. I want to see it too.

Halloween (2018)
I have a weirdly high knowledge of the Halloween franchise despite having only seen some of the first one, as a result of watching Cinemassacre videos. I know they already tried a 'let's ignore the earlier sequels' sequel with Halloween H20, and it was weird but interesting to hear that they were doing it again. Maybe I should watch the original (and the first sequel? Does H20 follow that?), H20, and this one, and see what I think.

Suspiria (2018)
I only watched the original Suspiria (1977) this year – I liked it a lot; my kind of thing – and I have to admit that I was a bit concerned that a remake would probably prioritise storytelling over atmosphere. I've heard this is good, but I'm not in a rush to see it.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
They're been very clever with the marketing for this because I initially thought that this was Spider-Man: Far From Home when I saw the poster. I've heard it's good but the superhero exhaustion has been pretty overwhelming this year.

I just couldn't be bothered. I suppose I'd be kind of curious to see Patrick Wilson hamming it up as Ocean Master?

Update: Well it's no Wonder Woman (or Shazam! for that matter) but it's all right. It's too long and the undersea CGI action is weightless and lacking in stakes, but as an over-the-top underwater melodrama crossed with a superhero film crossed with a bit of an adventure film it's not that bad. At times it does take itself too seriously, and Mamoa and Heard really lack the acting chops to be a particularly effective leading pair, but I did find something entertaining about how simultaneously ambitious and predictable it was. It exceeded my admittedly very low expectations.

Films on my radar that I actively didn't want to see
Ready Player One
God damn this sounds lame.

Too many superhero films! Go away! Apparently this did big money in China or something.

Johnny English Strikes Again
Did Rowan Atkinson want to buy a new car or something?

Films I saw
Black Panther
I have to be honest; I wasn't that into this film. I didn't find the characters terribly interesting apart from Kilmonger, with whom I sympathised more than T'Challa, the end battle was the usual CGI sleeping aid, and I've got to put it out there: I find the idea of Wakanda as basically a Western-style metropolis with a culture that's a mashup of existing African elements both limited and... uh... kinda racist. To clarify, I felt this because I felt like it implied that different African cultures were interchangeable and homogeneous, and it also implied that Western-style urbanisation was correlative with being "advanced". I mean, I'm a white guy, so it's not really up to me to make those kinds of claims about it, and people in general loved it, which is obviously a good thing, but it just wasn't my cup of tea.

The Death of Stalin
This was a damn good film. Armando Iannucci's political comedy is always terrific (see The Thick of It and Veep – I'm not devoted enough to have watched Brass Eye, yet at any rate) and the combination of a top notch cast with an absurd but real situation in an absurd but real setting makes for an excellent satire of powerful people, and how their ridiculousness is often hand-in-hand with their power. Obviously Steve Buscemi is great as Krushchev, but the highlight for me, beyond Jason Isaacs' turn as Zhukov, was seeing Michael Palin back in action as Molotov; very pleasant to see that he's still got it. For Iannucci, it was interesting to see how his stylings could be deployed in a setting in which, unlike his twenty-first century tv series, violence could openly be used as a political tool, which increased the pitch-blackness of the humour to even greater levels.

Avengers: Infinity War
I took a long time to see this because I was burnt out on superheroes after Black Panther, but in the end I enjoyed it much more than I expected. The huge cast was all used reasonably well, especially the Guardians of the Galaxy – proving unfortunately, but I suppose in a timely fashion, that they don't need James Gunn – and obviously Josh Brolin was pretty compelling as Thanos, even if wiping out half of all life in the universe would only delay overpopulation for a few decades at the most. I guess he's not "the mad Titan" or no reason. Ultimately my only serious objection to this film is the boring battle scene at the end in which the supposedly super-advanced Wakandans line up in a row like the Battle of Hastings and let Thanos' alien dogs run at them. What happened to those gunships from the Black Panther film? A couple of machine-gun nests would have annihilated Thanos' troops. Basically what I mean is that this final battle could have been presented in a much more interesting way. Other than that it was actually pretty good.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
Messy, pointless and forgettable, a handful of engaging elements can't elevate this misconceived piece of product above the weight of its sloppy execution. I don't have enough to say about this to bother going any further; check out my first impressions post here if you want to read more, or see my Star Wars Rankings article for why I consider this to be better than overrated fan darling Rogue One.

A very effective horror film, albeit not one that completely blew me away instantly, Hereditary seems to be one of those films that bears a bit of thought. I do think the plot, ultimately, was a little bit safe, featuring a dead grandmother making a pact with a demon for wealth and power in return for the soul of her grandchildren, but in this respect Hereditary almost felt like the plot of the Paranormal Activity franchise done in a classy and stylish way. The lack of jump scares is very satisfying, and the general sense of morbid dread that hangs across the whole thing is affecting; particularly noteworthy is the moment in which Charlie is decapitated in a drunk driving accident and the traumatised Peter leaves her body in the car to be found the next morning. The use of the house models to reflect the family's situation, while a little direct, also contributes to a disturbing tone. It's a very well-made film; not the most adventurous horror film of recent years, but effective nonetheless.

Incredibles 2
Is it enough to say "it was good, but not as good as The Incredibles?" The first film is one of my favourite films of all time, so this one had a lot to live up to. Despite sounding old (apart from the voice of Dash, who was recast and whose voice actor I think was actually a little better than the first one), the returning cast do a good job, and it was nice that this film focused on Helen to a greater extent than Bob. That being said, the characterisation of the two non-superhero main characters was a little confusing regarding why one loved and the other hated superheroes respectively, and I found the ending a bit bland. I dunno. Supposedly this was meant to come out in 2019 but because production was running more smoothly than that of Toy Story 4 their release dates were swapped, and a little part of me really would have liked to have seen what this film could have become if it was given those extra months. Also, continuing the story directly after the first film was an odd choice. Obviously it would have been repetitive to have pulled a Toy Story 3 on it and have set it a real-time number of years later, but I think a focus on new characters wouldn't have hurt; then again, I enjoyed the focus on Helen. As I say, it's a decent sequel, but it could probably never have lived up to the original.

Ant-Man and the Wasp
Apparently people liked this. Really? I thought it was miserable, trying to do comedy but with constant punchline and pacing misfires such that every joke fell flat. I was legitimately keen for a team-up film, especially as this was the first time in Marvel films that a woman superhero was a separate title character. Frankly, I was quite disappointed by this film. I was expecting something funnier and more exciting. Michael Douglas comes across as confused and frustrated (not as Hank Pym the character but in real life), Paul Rudd has even fewer opportunities to actually be funny and Evangeline Lily just has to play the boring humourless characterisation again. Maybe I was just tired when I saw it.

Christopher Robin
A film in which the trailer reveals literally everything that happens, I was also a bit let down by this one. The premise of an adult Christopher Robin having to reassess his priorities after Pooh Bear and friends come back into his life is interesting, but there just wasn't much to this. I know it's a kids' film but it's still predictable and safe. I enjoyed the amusingly Bolshie ending in which Christopher Robin solves his employer's financial hardship by declaring they should make affordable products for the poor, but Mark Gatiss can piss off. Ewan McGregor is reliable, as is veteran Pooh voice Jim Cummings (although why a British Christopher Robin's treasured toy would have an American accent is unexplained) but it's a bit of a waste of Hayley Atwell in a supporting role.

The Nun
To quote myself last time regarding Annabelle: Creation, "it's crap." See my full review here.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
Or, as I came to call it, Fantastic Beasts: The Sex Crimes of Grindelwald or Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Johnny Depp. I actually quite liked the first Fantastic Beasts film so it was a shame that this one was such a mess, particularly by bringing back far too many characters from the first film whose stories were over (Queenie, Jacob, Credence Clearwater Revival) and having an utterly pointless twist-untwist-twist exposition dump at the end of the second act which meant nothing and served no purpose. I appreciated JK Rowling's novelistic approach to screenwriting in the first film, but in this one it made the film cumbersome and lacking in narrative thrust. Still, three more films to go so she can presumably only get worse given the decline from the previous film to this one. Also, Johnny Depp is a bloody awful choice as Grindelwald, the entire Grindelwald-Dumbledore story is turned into a boring McGuffin-oriented non-story, and Jude Law is stuck doing a sort of weird Michael Gambon impression.

Holmes & Watson
Subject of walk-outs and being decried as the worst film of 2018, I honestly found this stupid, predictable, lazy and extremely late parody of the Guy Ritchie Holmes films more entertaining than Ant-Man and the Wasp, The Nun or Crimes of Grindelwald. I like the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories a great deal, but I've always enjoyed the idea of playing up the more cartoonish and buffoonish potential of the characters, and as such I found this to be mildly amusing at points. Probably the biggest problem with it is the waste of talented comedic and dramatic actors including Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan, Ralph Fiennes, Kelly Macdonald and Hugh Laurie in boring and unfunny roles as if someone was worried that they would outperform Will Ferrell. Still, I think John C. Reilly is good value and liked him in this more or less.

Worst film of 2018
I kind of want to give this to Ant-Man and the Wasp because I was so let down by it, but it has to be a toss-up between The Nun and Crimes of Grindelwald. They were both bloody awful, but Crimes of Grindelwald was more boring while The Nun was more incompetent. The Nun was also much shorter than Crimes of Grindelwald and therefore wasted less of my time, so I guess I'll give it to Crimes of Grindelwald.

Best film of 2018
It's either The Death of Stalin or Hereditary. Very different, of course, and very interesting; I think I enjoyed The Death of Stalin more, so I'll give that the title, but Hereditary more than deserves an honourable mention.

Monday, September 10, 2018

"The Nun"

-Sister Irene, repeatedly

In my review of the overrated Annabelle: Creation (which dummies on the internet apparently think is good), I said the following:
The most egregious element, however, is a brief scene shoehorned into the first act (or so) of the film in which Sister Charlotte, the girls' guardian, shows Annabelle's father a photograph of herself with some other nuns, one of which is actually Valak, the demon from The Conjuring 2. This is obviously done not just as a reference but as a piece of promotion for 2018's upcoming "The Nun" film about the character, as the scene bears no other real relevance to the plot or characterisation of this film. It's clearly another pathetic attempt to rip off Disney/Marvel's successful, yet increasingly bland and soulless, "cinematic universe" method, as Warner Bros. already tried (and presumably has failed) to do with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Universal is apparently attempting with its dare-I-dignify-it-by-naming-it "Dark Universe" franchise.
Well the Dark Universe is dead and buried, like Father Burke nearly was, the DC superhero films ("Extended Universe" isn't an official name, apparently) are being carried through the lone strength of Wonder Woman, and King Arthur's definitely still marooned on the Isle of Albion, but with a box office gross amounting to 600% of its budget as of my writing, The Nun seems to have shown that Warner Bros. has got the moneymaking franchise it was dreaming of. If only they could copy Marvel's knack for making lots of money while simultaneously making films which, while genuinely good only very rarely, generally aren't completely accurately describable as "utter shit".

It's surely needless to say that The Nun is bad. The script is extremely lazy, the cinematography is unreliable, the tone is wildly inconsistent and the editing is at points totally appalling. As with Annabelle: Creation, the best thing it has going for it is its cast, who probably could have done something interesting with a better screenplay.

On paper, the premise of The Nun could be intriguing: a grizzled priest and a young nun novice are sent to a remote abbey to investigate why one of the Sisters recently killed herself. The isolated abbey is reviled by the locals and is frustrating to access; it turns out that the convent is in its entirety long dead, and a malevolent intelligence has been imitating its ongoing operation to lure a candidate to the abbey to enable it to escape its confines and export its evil to the wider world.

In all honesty, I liked the implicit ideas of parts of The Nun as I was watching it. All the nuns are dead; the characters are just seeing visions and hearing voices. Are they being guided by heaven or misled by hell? But why bother developing that into an interesting screenplay when you could just string a bunch of jumpscare set-pieces together and call it a day? The marketing sells itself: it has a nice simple title, the memorable image of the villain from The Conjuring 2 and the connection to the wider franchise to stick on the poster. Hordes of teenagers or, as was the case in my screening, bored university students, are looking for just this kind of thing to wile away an evening with some cheap thrills.

To its infinitesimally limited credit, The Nun has maybe one and a half decent set-pieces: one in which Father Burke is buried alive and to an extent one in which a shadow stalks around the walls of a chapel during an apparent prayer. Other than that it's Conjuring jumpscares at their most shallow, largely involving Valak running at one of the protagonists while going "Raar!", a zombie nun falling on or lunging at a protagonist while going "Raar!", or pale claw-like hands bursting out of things and groping people's faces. This is set against the characters mindlessly wandering around the abbey to little apparent purpose.

A few other memorable moments include a very old nun in a veil turning out to be long dead (but this was another idea better in concept than execution) and an absurd flashback to the Middle Ages in which a group of crusaders straight out of a 1950s historical epic seal Valak away using a vial of the blood of none other than Jesus Christ Himself, which is kept in an object which looks like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Sister Irene, our other hero, later uses this to defeat Valak again by spitting it on his face.

While the opening of the film was unimpressive, with two nuns seemingly pointlessly opening a door they knew Valak was behind only to immediately get killed, I thought everything from Father Burke's introduction to his and Irene's arrival at the abbey and their exploration of the cold room and graveyard was adequate. They seemed to have a surprisingly easy time of travel through early 50s communist Romania, traveling to a secluded Catholic abbey in an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country, but I suppose they had to match it to that line from Annabelle: Creation in which Sister Charlotte, who was nowhere to be seen in this, said that she used to be there.

It was mostly after night fell on that first day that things started to go badly wrong, such as Maurice's uninteresting encounter with the demonic image of the dead nun, although as I mentioned Father Burke's premature burial was a decent idea. That being said, the idea that the slight, delicate-looking Sister Irene would be able to dig him up in time was absurd. I suppose you can attribute that to demonic magic or something. Father Burke has a storyline about a boy who died after an exorcism, but it doesn't serve his character development because he doesn't undergo any. None of them do, really, but I don't think the film cared.

The thing that perplexes me most about the film is the casting of Taissa Farmiga as Irene given that she is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine in The Conjuring and its sequel. I was getting the impression that, having already chucked so much of the Warrens' real-life story out the window (such as the fact that they were massive crackpots), they were going to make this the fictionalised backstory of Lorraine and that they'd deliberately cast an actress who looked like Vera Farmiga to set this up. Imagine my surpise when the credits revealed that they'd cast an actual relative as an unrelated character. It turns out that this was simply a coincidence, or perhaps nepotism. It seemed like a wasted opportunity to me, especially because I thought Taissa Farmiga was decent in the role and got the impression she was playing a very similar character to (fictional) Lorraine. I was almost worried Maurice was going to turn out to be Ed somehow, but no, he was just that guy you see in the footage in the first Conjuring, Probably an even more laborious tie-in than the one Annabelle: Creation made to Annabelle the original.

In terms of filmmaking, on a handful of occasions the camera work and lighting did engage me, but at many other times it was flat and empty, completely denuding "scary" scenes of tension. The film in general is too tensionless to be scary; the scariest part, the live burial, happens in the first act of the film. Constantly barraging us with spooky nuns standing ominously in corridors before bursting forth going "Raar!" doesn't add much, nor do the endless shots of people being telekinetically shoved away into the walls. The other issue with engagement is that when Maurice is reintroduced in the third act of the film he is used almost exclusively for comedy, with the result that the film's tone abandons almost any effort at suspense and seems to intentionally embrace being farcical.

However, as I mentioned before, the most purely incompetent element of the film is the editing. At certain points the film smashes back and forth between shots and characters without room for establishment or pacing. An absolutely atrocious moment occurs in which Irene is being informed by the (vision) nun regarding the abbey's history; at one point, when the war is mentioned, the footage smash cuts to a shot of bombs falling on the castle, and a different piece of music suddenly starts blaring out with the hastiest of fade-ins, before smashing back. In the same conversation, the shot holds on Irene's face, cuts to a mid shot of the two at a table, and then a second later smashes back to the close up of Irene; I suspect they had to re-record dialogue and had no usable footage of the other nun actually saying it. A similar bit of awkward cutting happens when Father Burke is relating his unfortunate exorcism of years past, which suggests to me that some of the film's problems come from, surprise surprise (it's Warner Bros.), studio interference insisting upon more exposition and/or padding to bulk out the film and make brainless shitheads pay attention. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the material about the Holy Hand Grenade full of Jesus' blood, the portal in the floor and the evil Duke being done in by crusaders was not in the original script. I mean, Jesus' actual blood?

I find the weird Catholic overtones of the film odd, but then again I did in The Conjuring 2 as well. I'm from a nonreligious family and went to a Protestant school, so I have little formal knowledge of Catholicism, and as such all the stuff about nuns taking vows and so on feels a little out of place to me. How come you never see the Anglican church fighting demons? Probably too busy organising church fĂȘtes and pretending that they don't also have a history of systemic child abuse. I also find bringing God into horror films a bit weird because for some reason the problem of evil seems to seem more problematic than ever if God isn't just letting history take its horrible course but is also letting fallen angels wantonly run amok on Earth. That's not really a problem with the film, just something that I always find slightly odd in exorcism-related films. As a comment I read pointed out, if these films operate within a Catholic universe then consecrated red wine ought to work just as well as Jesus' actual blood, incidentally, because theologically they're the same thing. Again, I don't come from a Catholic background so the idea of communion has always seemed incredibly alien to me, but there you go. I don't think McGuffins were something the franchise was crying out for, but now not only are they present but they're going the whole hog. Couldn't it have just been a local saint's blood or something?

Why am I still writing about this? The Nun is bad and I couldn't even honestly recommend it to die-hard The Conjuring completionists like myself. The film has made plenty of money, there's supposedly a third Annabelle in the works and Wan's working on a Conjuring 3 script. Yet while Warner Bros. now knows that they can comfortably use these films to make big returns on small investments, they ought to think of the kind of money they could be making if they actually bothered to invest just a little more to produce the time, creativity and effort to actually make these films good. Well-made films can still be cheap and will generally have a better return than bad films due to positive word of mouth and voluntary publicity. They need to learn from Disney-Marvel that if you really want the big money from a cinematic "universe" then more than half the films in it can't be complete garbage.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Hindsight: A 2017 Cinematic Retrospective

Here we go again...

10 Films of 2017 That I Didn't See
The Lego Batman Movie
I haven't seen the Lego Movie, so, perhaps absurdly, I felt like I shouldn't watch this until after I'd seen that. Update: I've seen it now. While not as funny as the Lego Movie from which it spun off, the voice performances are great, particularly from Will Arnett, Zach Galifinakis and Michael Cera, and the character-driven story makes a surprisingly pithy observation about loners who claim to feel nothing and need nobody. It's not really a Batman film, just a comedy about characters based on the Batman characters, but even so it's still the best film to feature him since The Dark Knight.

Given that I actually liked X-Men: Days of Future Past I should probably watch this as well.

Beauty and the Beast
No one appears in a film like 1991 animated Gaston. Couldn't be bothered with a live action do-over, despite, like many lads who grew up in the early 2000s, having a soft spot for Emma Watson.

Kong: Skull Island
More like Kong: Skullf*ck Island, amirite?

Baby Driver
Edgar Wright hasn't done anything good since Hot Fuzz.

Alien: Covenant
After Prometheus? Good god, no.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Despite being slightly tempted by the prospect of seeing Paul McCartney completely fail to act, and somewhat enjoying On Stranger Tides, I was totally put off by a) Johnny Depp these days, and b) the title being too similar to that of the second film, which is just lazy.

I haven't read the book (or indeed any Stephen King) so I feel like seeing the film would just be like seeing what it is, a film adaptation of a very long and complex novel. Why bother?

I, Tonya
I should probably see this, if only so I can compare it to Weird Al's music video for "Headline News".

The Shape of Water
I should probably see this too.

13 Films of 2017 I Have Seen:
Get Out
It was good. Is that a trite opinion now? The uncomfortable atmosphere and ludicrous, but satirically effective, sci-fi premise make it striking and memorable. Daniel Kaluuya's performance is pretty spot-on; personally I found it all rather gripping, but I think retroactively it was oversold to people, affecting its impact. The hypnotic abyss he's sent to is vividly realised, and the auction scene is absolutely haunting. Furthermore, it's nice to see him get his revenge on all these lunatics as the film continues. Besides, it's got that song Redbone in it that everyone loves, so surely it's all good.

The Blackcoat's Daughter aka February
Another horror film, this one was also tense, atmospheric and chilling. Its representation of the alienation and disaffection of young people represented through what could either be mental illness or genuine devil-worship is rather grisly and morbidly fascinating to watch. It's memorably lit and coloured as well in harsh whites, greys and blacks, adding to the sense of isolation and unease. Perhaps its only weakness is the narrative conceit concerning Kat and "Joan", because Kiernan Shipka and Emma Roberts just don't look that alike. Like a film I similarly appreciated with comparable elements, The Witch, it leaves plenty to the imagination: was she genuinely in contact with a malevolent intelligence, or was she just insane? This is the kind of thing that makes for good horror in my view.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
This is a pretty strong sequel to the first film, functioning well as a character study for virtually all of the main cast, including some new ones. Mantis is a welcome addition to the team and it handles the stories of Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Nebula and Yandu deftly, which speaks a lot to James Gunn's talent as a writer as well as a director. Drax, my personal favourite of the Guardians, is in more of a support role here, but his friendship with Mantis makes it worthwhile. The villain, Kurt Russell's Ego (no pun intended), has a reasonable if slightly rushed motivation. I only have two criticisms of this film. The first is that I think it slightly lacks the same spirit of adventure as the first film. The other is that the final battle in Ego's core is an over-long, weightless CGI nothing-fest, the kind of thing that bores me to tears rather than exciting me. Other than that, it's a solid space opera outing. If it wasn't for the excess of CGI, these films would actually have a chance of being worthy modern equivalents of Star Wars in some respects.

Wonder Woman
The best film in DC's current franchise by a staggering margin, Wonder Woman proves what's been eluding Warner Bros. all along: that if you actually let creative people with an interest and an appropriate vision (so not Zach Snyder) do their jobs and don't constantly interfere with them you might actually get something good. Gal Gadot, despite a shaky start in Batman v Superman, brings a great deal of strength and heart to the role of Diana, while Chris Pine provides admirable support as Steve Trevor. The First World War setting is interesting and well-utilised, positioning itself right at the end of the conflict to give the film an appropriately apocalyptic feeling. I do have a few issues with the film. I think it's slightly too long; I think it's weird that they represent the real-life Ludendorff as a supervillain when, despite being a co-military-dictator, he was really just a little fat man with a moustache; David Thewlis doesn't make for a terribly effective villain either; the female villain, Dr Poison, is surprisingly forgettable in an otherwise strongly woman-led film; and the final battle between Diana and Ares is another meaningless CGI dust-up with no weight to it. Otherwise, I liked it and it's frustrating the other DC films can't emulate it. Give the director's chair to Patty Jenkins for the next Justice League or whatever.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
I struggled to get into this one. Tom Holland is good as Spider-Man, and he feels like the best onscreen version of the character of the post-2000 adaptations, but the film itself felt off to me. I realise that they didn't just want to do the same old shit as Sam Raimi's films and those godawful Amazing Spider-Man ones with the Manhattan setting, crazy supervillain with some over-the-top plan and/or obession with Spider-Man, and so on, but sometimes it just didn't feel that much like Spider-Man to me. Then again, what do I know about Spider-Man? As with all Marvel Cinematic Universe stuff these days there was too much Tony Stark as Iron Man, I found the whole sequence in Washington DC weirdly out of place, and the bit where Spider-Man's trapped in the underground warehouse or whatever was just tedious. On the other hand, I liked Michael Keaton as the Vulture, his character development, and the fact that he had a pretty down-to-earth motivation. That twist in which he turns out to be Liz's father got me as well. An okay film, but I just feel like it's missing something. I wouldn't mind rewatching it.

A Ghost Story
I only just watched this, but it's a very touching thing. A representation of how we become attached to places and people, often without really knowing why, it manages to be bittersweet, poignant and successful at capturing a sense of the mysteriousness of life and reality while the main character is a silent man in a bedsheet with two eyeholes cut in it. It has an excellent soundtrack and long, lingering shots which ask us to contemplate and meditate, filling the space with our own moods and thoughts, reflecting on ourselves. I'm pretty sure the guy at the party with the beard is not expressing the film's own argument, but rather something we're meant to see as wrong; it doesn't matter if entropy and decay doom our works to eventual nothingness. What value can we have beyond that which we produce in our relationships with the people around us, and for a little while after us? It's fundamentally a triumph of existentialism over nihilism, a differentiation so easily misunderstood in the modern day. Plus it has five minutes of Rooney Mara eating a really gross-looking chocolate pie. I absurdly saw this at the shop today in the horror section. I assume whoever was stocking the shelves hasn't watched it.

Christopher Nolan's much-lauded tension-fest, this atmospheric Second World War film is suspenseful almost to a fault, to the point at which I suspect an element of realism may have been lost, although realism was probably never the point. The practical effects used to represent the air combat, however, are hugely welcome, and if the film at times is predictable, and it loses something in featuring too many of Nolan's regulars, it's still of the same high standard as any Nolan film I've seen (apart from The Dark Knight Rises, that sucked). That's the thing about Nolan, though: he's like a "premium package" kind of director, who makes extremely, exceedingly well-crafted films, but doesn't necessarily make films of great artistic genius with any consistency, if at all. Maybe that's not what he's after.

Annabelle: Creation
It's crap. Read my full review here.

Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman's Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill is definitely engaging, as is the film as a whole, but despite its efforts to make Churchill a rounded character the film almost inevitably comes across as hagiographic, depicting Churchill as fundamentally a good man with a few minor character flaws. In reality, as the cliché goes, people are much more complicated. Churchill may well have been the only man in the party with the conviction to stand up to Hitler, but the film tries to present him as being, or developing into, a loveable man of the people when in reality he was a racist snob for whom the war was ultimately not about saving democracy but rather leveraging Britain's ongoing geopolitical influence in Europe. I'm not saying Churchill wasn't a great man of conviction and purpose for standing up to Germany when everyone around him was succumbing to defeatism, but couldn't the portrait be a little more balanced? Regardless, purely as a piece of cinema, it's well-made and entertaining, with only the Tube scene really standing out as something schmaltzy and reeking of wishful thinking.

Blade Runner 2049
A nice-looking and largely thought-provoking science fiction film in its own right, its greatest weakness ultimately derives from presenting itself as a sequel to the timeless, inimitable original. The first half or two thirds of the film is actually a good deal more engrossing than anything that happens after Harrison Ford shows up and the film becomes obsessed with the absent Rachel. You can read or, if you prefer, listen to my full review here.

Thor: Ragnarok
In my view, this is absolutely the best Marvel superhero film in years, probably since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Its greatest success is in not taking itself particularly seriously, with a great deal of humour, an energetic soundtrack courtesy of Mark Mothersbaugh, and lavish visuals. Like all of these superhero films it does inevitably suffer from excess of CGI, but the humour and storytelling in my view largely make up for it. Unfortunately, the film grinds to a halt every time it cuts back to Asgard and Cate Blanchett hamming it up as Hela, which lacks the humour and visual style of the rest of the film; seeing Thor's friends get massacred, for instance, is almost too bleak compared to what happens elsewhere. Nonetheless, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo and Tessa Thompson are all on fine form, especially considering how many of these Hemsworth and Hiddleston have done. I actually enjoyed the idea that Asgard is a people, rather than a place (it's more set up in the film than you might think), Odin gets a nice sendoff, and the method of defeating Hela by exploiting Surtur to destroy the planet was a nice twist, I thought. Jeff Goldblum's good too. Can you tell I like this film?

Justice League
It sucked, everyone knew it was going to suck, it was always going to suck, it sucked. I actually kind of liked it because it was so stupid, but the villain is incredibly boring, Ben Affleck has already given up on being Batman after the last debacle, Wonder Woman doesn't have enough to do despite being in such a successful precursor, and Aquaman feels as pointless as the stereotype portrays him as being. The only vaguely successful new(ish) character is the Flash; Cyborg is totally forgettable. No one really seems to care about how ghoulish and Frankensteinian the resurrection of Superman is either. I honestly feel sorry for everyone involved in this, but if you want mindless superhero camp it kind of does its job.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
As I've said a thousand times, it's an unbelievably frustratingly flawed film with some incredibly good, very strong elements. Rey, Luke and Kylo equals interesting. Poe, Finn and Rose equals clumsy and distracting. As much as I think the film's biggest and loudest detractors come across as either frothing pop-culture obsessives or sinister political culture warriors, I can't help but feel that Rian Johnson should have just made more of a crowd pleaser, although it's the media's fault for making idiots think that Snoke's identity and Rey's parents were important. Read my full review here, my article on why Snoke doesn't matter here, my article on why Rey was right to not join Kylo here, my article on Luke's characterisation here and my article on the film's theme of nonviolence here.

Best Film of 2017?
Probably A Ghost Story which I reviewed above, in terms of pure cinema, by which I mean doing something with film in a way that couldn't work in another medium. That being said, I really did like Thor: Ragnarok, the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Maybe I'll split it, giving Thor: Ragnarok my "best piece of Hollywood trash of 2017" award and A Ghost Story my "best actual film of 2017" award.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Solo: Initial (Apathetic) Impressions

Half a year after The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story has staggered into cinemas after months of worrying press and a widespread (if, in my opinion, misconceived) antipathy for the franchise arising after 2017's Episode. I didn't expect much from Solo: Han will meet Chewie and Lando, acquire the Millennium Falcon and do the Kessel Run. And in the end that's basically all that happens. As usual with these initial impressions posts, let me just run through what I liked, didn't like and didn't care about either way.

1. What I Didn't Like
Much of the Action
Solo wasn't as bad as Rogue One in this respect, but I wasn't terribly engrossed by a lot of the action. The opening act car chase sequence seemed to mostly just be CGI cars bashing into each other with no dialogue or use of characters, while the train job felt unimpressive because it's the same old greenscreen extravaganza we get all the time now, only mildly redeemed by a few slightly interesting ideas like the use of clips to keep the characters attached to the train. Similarly, there was no tension to the Kessel Run, because we know Han will succeed, so watching a giant space monster get sucked off into a black hole didn't have much impact on me.

The Excessive Number of Characters
I didn't see the point of having such a large supporting cast in this film. In addition to the two members of Beckett's original crew, who are killed off in the train job, we have Beckett himself, Qi'ra and L3. Then we have the villain whose name I couldn't be bothered looking up, played by Paul Bettany, plus the young rebel leader whose name I also can't remember. Personally I found this distracting and focus-pulling, especially as, given that this is a prequel, we know that everyone apart from Han, Chewie and Lando is going to die or disappear, so I didn't feel that there was any tension involving them. They at least had more characterisation than anyone in Rogue One, but that film, this one and The Last Jedi have all suffered from overstuffed casts which detract from the very character studies they try to achieve.

The Pacing and Character Inconsistency
Frankly, I felt that the film was too long and lacked narrative momentum. Han's initial goal seems to be to reunite with Qi'ra, but she turns out to be (largely) fine, so he's given a new motivation – avoid being killed by Paul Bettany – and then that in turn is replaced by a third motivation in the final act: to help out the young rebel leader. The last half hour or so of the film felt particularly clunky to me; the film didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular and in all honesty I couldn't see the point of any of it. Why didn't he just take his money and go? Having him hoodwink the villain to help the rebels seemed inconsistent with how he appears in the original Star Wars, reinforced by Qi'ra somewhat inaccurately insisting that he's a good person when we know that his character development really comes later in his life.
That's probably my biggest issue with the film, really: it doesn't tell us anything both new and important about Han, so what's the purpose of it (besides selling cinema tickets)? Star Wars is an action franchise, of course, but all the hijinks in this film seemed wildly disproportionate to Han's character and behaviour in Star Wars, in which the most he's really up to doing is running down a corridor firing a blaster. If it was meeting Luke and saving Leia which motivated Han to become a good person, why is he already doing more than looking out for himself here? All Han really learns is to be less trusting, but it's surprising to see his credulousness given his hard life anyway.

The Info Dump
Everything the info dump after "A long time ago" etc tells the audience is immediately obvious by watching the first five minutes of the film. Some executive must have decided this was necessary, and I can't think why. It's especially absurd for introducing the character of Proxima as if she's going to be a major villain, when she's barely in it at all.

Moving on.

2. What I Did Like
Han, Chewie and Lando
I thought it was "fun" actually seeing how Han, Chewie and Lando met, although it was hardly necessary. Alden Ehrenreich was fine as Han, although he seemed more Harrison Ford-y in the opening of the film than at any other time. Chewie was used appropriately. Everyone seemed to anticipate Donald Glover as Lando, and he was pretty entertaining, although I didn't think he had enough to do. I think I would have liked the film more if it was more focused on these three characters. I also found Paul Bettany to be pretty watchable as the villain. Finally, I appreciated the moment when Han simply shot Beckett while he was trying to give out some more pithy advice. That was a glimpse, I felt, of the Han we ought to expect, regardless of any other "shooting first" issues.

Three Years Later
An isolated moment I found quite enjoyable was when the film abruptly jumped forward in time after the opening, depicting Han as a terrified grunt on a war-torn battlefield. Given how sanitised the action usually is in these films, seeing dirty, miserable soldiers in the middle of nightmarish chaos was pretty effective in my opinion, even if it was only for one scene. People talked about Rogue One as a "gritty war film", but its final run-around on a tropical beachfront paled in comparison to the few minutes of horror we got to see here, which also gave a neat insight into the cruelty and (ironic, given their prejudices) inhumanity of the Imperial government. Most of the rest of what we saw in the film has been done before, in the Cantina, Jabba's Palace and Coruscant. I felt like this one little bit genuinely did something different. It was also nice to see Imperial troops who weren't just the generic Stormtroopers.

Some of the Design
There were some decent puppets and things in the film, although I felt like a lot of it was too visually busy. I don't have much else to say about it. Lando had a good costume?

3. What I Didn't Care About Either Way
People are acting as if this character is a blatant indication of the nefarious something-ist agenda on the part of Disney – insert your favourite loaded ism here; feminists or Marxists or something. Firstly, she was barely in it, and secondly, none of the characters take her seriously, which suggests a parody of these kinds of people rather than a sincere message. Regardless, the idea of "robot rights" is a really old one in science-fiction. As far as I'm concerned, people these days are just looking for excuses to be reactionary about the most insignificant things, and usually they're too lacking in self-awareness to see that they've been stirred up by pundits who want clicks for their YouTube videos or whatever. I didn't care about this character either way.

Darth Maul
His presence, voiced by the same actor who's voiced him in the cartoon shows, and with his obligatory robot legs, only seems to suggest that the line between the mainstream films and spin-off crap for kids and nerds is becoming more and more hazy. I just don't see the point. I thought Darth Maul was cool when The Phantom Menace came out – when I was nine years old. His presence is meaningless to me now.

So there you have it. Solo is just a film. I liked it more than Rogue One, but that's not saying much. It's not doing well at all at the box office, comparatively speaking, which suggests that Lucasfilm needs to do a bit of thinking about its flagship franchise and how much mileage it really has in it right now.