Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Rise of Skywalker: Initial (manic) reactions

SPOILER WARNING
Pictures to follow.
I changed my mind about both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi upon rewatch, the latter admittedly to a greater extent, so I can't necessarily trust my reaction to the latest instalment of Star Wars, but I also can't deny it when one of my reactions, unlike those previous two, is "I'm not sure whether I even want to see it again."
On the simplest level, my reaction to The Rise of Skywalker is that I was bored and bewildered simultaneously. The film is paced utterly frenetically, with almost no room for character development, and it's hugely plot driven to an embarrassing extent, with little real sense of natural conflict. As a result, it doesn't feel much like a Star Wars film at all, which both of its predecessors, in my view, did in their best moments, especially The Last Jedi.
It's been argued that the Sequel Trilogy had nowhere to go after Episode VIII, but to me it was fairly obvious: how will Rey fulfill her role as leader and inheritor of a great legacy? How will Kylo Ren be redeemed? What's noteworthy about this is that in this structure the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order is not particularly important; it's just dressing for the story of two young people who find themselves in positions in which their decisions will affect the fate of many: not a bad place for a narrative, in my view.
The Rise of Skywalker, however, either doesn't recognise this or doesn't want to, because while the film touches upon these points amid its relentless Macguffin-driven plotting, it pays them so little attention and breathing room amid the endless journeying and changing of location that they are practically lost, and in this regard the film, in contrast to, to make an obvious comparison, Return of the Jedi, cannot deliver a clear and satisfying resolution for its primary hero and villain.
The film has a handful of good moments, mostly centred around the bond between Rey and Kylo, and Kylo's moment of redemption, but these are soon over. In its inability to construct a character-driven drama, the film lurches from place to place in an exhausting fashion, struggling to give Poe and Finn some depth by giving them single conversations with irrelevant secondary characters who contribute nothing to the story. The film also suffers in its use of the legacy characters, with the exception of Han. The presence of Leia, achieved using old footage of Carrie Fisher, is unnecessary and encumbers the writing, and Luke's scene has absolutely no presence or gravitas, especially in contrast to Yoda's appearance in The Last Jedi.
The film is also frustrating in its cowardice and laziness, undermining the previous film by presenting Rey as Palpatine's inexplicable long lost granddaughter and using Palpatine as its villain rather than driving its narrative through meaningful conflict between Rey and Kylo. Instead of taking a mature approach in continuing the previous film's narrative it tries to create a new and arbitrary threat which also undermines the previous trilogy. The story structure and writing feel "off", out of kilter with the other films in their heavy focus on exposition, and consequently lack emotional impact.
I shouldn't be surprised that a film cowritten by Chris Terrio, who worked on some of DC's worst recent offerings, felt this way, but it's frustrating to see this writing inflicted on characters who may have had some potential for a satisfying resolution in more subtle hands. I feel particularly sorry for Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, who are given roles with none of the relative meatiness of the previous film outside of a couple of scenes still compromised by the grotesque focus on Star-Wars-mythology-based exposition. Their characters are not allowed to reach satisfying dramatic conclusions, only endings produced by the inertia of the plot; Rey wielding two lightsabers to disintegrate Palpatine with his own lightning means nothing when it's not clear what character journey is being completed in that moment.
The film wants to do something interesting with showing Rey's temptation by the dark side, and a noteworthy highlight is when Rey, in her desperation to save Chewie (she thinks) uses Force Lightning and seemingly kills him. However, this is lumbered with the unnecessary associations of Rey being a descendant of Palpatine rather than the situation symbolising an ordinary human desire for control in difficult circumstances. As a result the film pointlessly rehashes the thesis presented in The Last Jedi that lineage is not important, but in a rushed, clumsy and unsatisfying way.  Rey's temptation by Palpatine to assume the leadership of the dead Sith Order is a complete reprisal of his temptation of Luke in Return of the Jedi but without the tension and drama which that film possessed due to Luke's relationship with Vader; by eliminating Kylo from the scene by that point no relationship exists to inform Rey's decisions apart from her distant affection for Finn and Poe, which this film fails to provide with much chemistry despite trying to cram a madcap adventure for the three of them into the film's middle act. There's simply not enough motivation for Rey to want to join or lead the Sith, and thus the climax is weightless and lacking wholly in tension.
Similarly, the redemption of Ben Solo, born of Rey's kindness and his mother's sacrifice, is somewhat effective, largely due to the conversation with Han, but this is just a brief moment in a film too lacking in clear character arcs for the development to be wholly effective. I criticised The Last Jedi for not giving its critical character moments enough structural focus; in The Rise of Skywalker they don't receive enough composition at all. The film has the seeds of interesting ideas within itself, but they are completely drowned by the mindless obsession with plot and excessive action.
As irritating and frustrating as the other two films in the Sequel Trilogy could be, when I was watching them I always at least felt that I was watching a film with some degree of structure and vision. With The Rise of Skywalker I felt more like I was viewing a studio-mandated mess in the manner of Suicide Squad or Justice League. The Star Wars film it reminded me of the most, sadly in my case as I consider it the worst of the Disney-era projects  (perhaps until now) is Rogue One: characterisation dumped in favour of plot-driven setting-hopping and fanservice. Despite, say, Canto Bight, I dearly wish Rian Johnson had accepted the writer/director job after Colin Trevorrow was let go; even if what we'd received was flawed, even annoying at times, it probably at least would have been measured and thoughtful. Maybe I'll change my mind if I can face watching this again, but Lucasfilm and Abrams let down not fans or audiences but their cast and themselves in this stupendously botched finale.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

"Knives Out"

You, your friends and your Johnson.
"It's good and I enjoyed it." I can see this being my review of Rian Johnson's 2019 murder mystery in my as-yet-unwritten "Hindsight 2019" film recap, and while it's never as much fun praising a film as it is explaining what I disliked about it, I have to admit that as someone with more than a soft spot for half of his 2017 outing, The Last Jedi, I'm pleased to see that audiences and critics seem to be enjoying Johnson's newest film. It's a quirky murder mystery with an all-star cast, strong direction and excellent cinematography. So what am I going to say about Knives Out that isn't just me saying what everyone else has already said?
Wasn't I going to do a "Halloween sequels"
review project one of these days?
Ever since The Last Jedi, Johnson has developed an often-mocked reputation for "subverting expectations", although in that case it was mostly the expectations of media-manipulated unimaginative Star Wars fans, not average cinema-goers. I wouldn't want to spoil any of the plot of Knives Out but it still conforms to this pattern, changing direction on a number of occasions. Spoilers beware, so don't read on if you care, but it starts, seemingly, as a fairly conventional murder mystery, then becomes a story about the killer covering their tracks with only the culprit and the audience in on it, and then it becomes a sort of moral drama, and then it goes back to being a murder mystery again. What this means is that, given the length of the film, it maintains a sense of pace and structure without the kinds of conventions that usually prop up detective mysteries.
Please just end the Bond franchise after No Time to Die.
As a result there's no major need for the film to string an extended series of crimes together which occur during the investigation, to involve an extensive hunt for clues, or to rely on any particular character being too obvious or too conspicuously implausible as the villain. This does have the effect, in the denouement, of making the plot revelations a little confusing to follow. Johnson takes a relatively light touch with his storytelling, beginning the narrative in the middle of the investigation and keeping expository flashbacks relatively brief and quick, and while for most of the sequence of events this keeps things pacey, admittedly there are a couple of times in which information can be a little unclear. In addition to the final revelations, there is one secondary character who becomes relatively important late in the story whose role was not made sufficiently clear, in my opinion, early on. There is a level to which I appreciate the story expecting the viewer to pay attention, but I did feel that this could have used a touch more emphasis. This only means, however, that the film will reward repeated viewings.
I was initially very confused about who she was meant to be.
It's also worth discussing the film for its political message, something much more explicit than Johnson was mindlessly accused of including in The Last Jedi. It's hard not to see that he must have been influenced by the nonsensical and repugnant "culture war" discourse surrounding his Star Wars episode when writing this, as several of the younger characters toss about online political jargon, with one of the elders pointedly observing that they don't have a clue what the kids are talking about. This kind of bickering between wealthy, privileged whitebread elites is strongly juxtaposed to the kindness and compassion of Marta, the deceased's nurse. The racial and cultural screaming match of US politics is contrasted to one woman's simple humanity, and Johnson cleverly has this recognised not by the East Coast literati of the deceased's family, but rather by the broad-Southern-accented detective played with much relish by Daniel Craig. The film's message, ultimately, is rather radical: personal kindness is more important than partisanship. The justice served in the film, as a consequence, goes beyond the spirit of the law and functions on a human level.
"That's actually hilarious."
I'd probably argue that of the three film's of Johnson's I've seen, the other which I haven't otherwise mentioned being Looper, Knives Out is the most effortlessly, consistently enjoyable. Much of it is carried by the performances of Craig and Ana de Armas, but the rest of the large cast has fun in fairly simple whodunnit-archetype roles; Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson and Toni Collette are all entertaining to watch, and you seemingly can't go wrong with Chris Evans. Humour and lightness suit Johnson well, and his rigorous approach to scripting, which I felt made The Last Jedi at times over-intellectualised, works aptly here for reasons of pace and plotting. Oddly enough, the night before watching Knives Out I'd been complaining to two friends that mainstream audiences never watched anything but superhero films anymore, so I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a full house to see this. I could almost see Johnson occupying a weird space somewhere between Tarantino and Wes Anderson with more films of this stripe. What if Rian Johnson saves mid-budget Hollywood? Wouldn't that be the ultimate triumph?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

"The Mandalorian" First Impressions

Supposedly Lucas himself invented the name,
so sadly not an instance of EU daydreaming "gone on".
Talking about Star Wars on the internet at any time since about 1999 on virtually any platform, let alone a small personal blog, is little different to standing on your verandah on a hot summer night in the tropics and trying to out-chirp the cicadas, but one has to write about what takes one's interest in the moment, and while I'm sure it would be enormously more productive for me to review, I don't know, some small independent project in need of love and attention (like The Si├Ęcle podcast or something), I just watched the first three episodes of Disney's new effort to please developmentally-arrested dudebro fanboys and didn't mind it, so let's talk about The Mandalorian.
Squeeze his legs together and he fires.
Of time of writing there are three episodes (or "chapters") of The Mandalorian out, and of course YouTube is awash with, spoilers beware, videos about the significance of aliens of a certain variety, references to the Prequel Trilogy and the cartoons, the old Extended Universe and anything else one would care to imagine, but the question which is of most important relevance is why the show seems to be decent. At the very least it's worth considering what the explanation is for the tone and style of the show and what it seems to have been designed to resonate with.
This blue dude looks like he should be studying
with Wesley Crusher at Starfleet Academy.
Probably the most obvious reason I can think of is that it has some very reliable people behind it. Jon Favreau, as writer-producer, has always been very good at making "solid" entertainment: not necessarily mind-blowing, but rarely (in my experience) too annoying or dull either. Along with Favreau are creative types like Dave Filoni, who ran Clone Wars and Rebels, and Christopher Yost, who wrote The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, which for three-quarters of its existence was a very consistently enjoyable Marvel superhero cartoon with clear storytelling for kids and lots of references and fan-pleasing for nerds.
"Uh... streets in The Galaxy are built to a template,
like kit homes."
And I think this speaks volumes about what The Mandalorian is, and why it seems to have struck a chord with Star Wars fans: it's a live-action kids' cartoon with cinematic production value and a "Mature" rating. It's essentially a realisation of the dream of any kid who's thought, "I wish that thing from my childhood could be brought back in a way where I wouldn't be embarrassed watching it as an adult" (in my case it would probably be Inspector Gadget or something). The Mandalorian is basically a kid playing with his Boba Fett action figure with a slightly different coat of paint and a Star Wars visual dictionary lying open on the floor. The only difference is that this has more explicit murder, abduction, unethical scientific experiments, massacres and war trauma. But at the end of the day it's just kids' TV for adults.
Everyone's already even made the
Rick & Morty reference.
None of this is a point against The Mandalorian. Star Wars has always been a family-oriented concept, and I think unashamedly playing around with the setting in a way focused on the franchise's core strengths (in the Originals) of likeable characters, fun action and cool designs is entirely appropriate. On that note, however, character is probably where the show could stand to develop further. While the titular protagonist benefits from an expressive physical and vocal performance, a lot of his appeal seems to rely on him looking "cool" onscreen, along with having a token tragic backstory as every Star Wars protagonist has, and this could become uninteresting if not handled well. It remains to be seen.
"Where's my eye?"
I enjoyed the first episode of The Mandalorian and enjoyed parts of the second and third ones. The first episode's strengths came from some effective narrative choices not made elsewhere. For instance, the title character simply zaps a big monster rather than fighting it to get his ship away from the ice planet, and teams up with the IG droid without much fuss, something making it a bit less predictable than the following episodes. My biggest gripe is some of the fan service (see alien mentioned above and a certain previously-uncommon bounty hunting tactic) and the fact that I'm not too intrigued yet about where the story is going. I'm mostly just in it to see Star Wars-y stuff happening on the screen with the camera focused on a guy who has a cool helmet. Hopefully the helmet isn't still the most memorable thing after all eight episodes are done.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Joker"

"Are you aware that we live in a society?"
I seem to recall finding the news that DC and Warner Bros. were making a standalone Joker film unconnected to their wider "Extended Universe" (unofficial title, apparently) project utterly laughable – so now there were two Jokers; one the useless Jared Leto version, presumably now abandoned, and a more "realistic" version to be played by Joaquin Phoenix. But it was worth putting aside preconceptions, because not every superhero film has to be part of a cinematic project; indeed the success of this film at the box office has shown that Warner Bros. was wise to do so, extricating the concept from a mess for which Aquaman and Shazam! were only mildly able to continue Wonder Woman's ability to rise above.
"Hey clown! Why do you live in a society so much?"
In saying all this I have to admit that while I enjoyed Phoenix in Her, the only film I can recall ever seeing him in due to my extremely patchy and sporadic knowledge of cinema, I didn't have much interest in a Joker origin story. I've always been fond of that dismissal provided by the Clown himself in his own pseudo-origin, the Killing Joke comic book, that his past was "multiple choice", a concept exploited effectively, of course, by the characterisation of the Heath Ledger incarnation in The Dark Knight. And I've also always had my own conception of the character that's never been fulfilled, even in the die-hard "definitive" animated version voiced by Mark Hamill. I've always thought that the Joker should find everything funny, even when it's at his own expense. But that's a dream which shall continue to be only so.
"And this wiseacre claims that we live in a society!"
There's not much to say about Joker that hasn't been said already, to be honest. People seem to either think that it's brilliantly unique and refreshing for a very old and tired Batman character, or that it's just a derivative pastiche of Scorsese films of days gone by, something the filmmakers were quite openly inspired by. I must admit, having watched Taxi Driver not so long ago it was hard not to see Joker as pure simulation in that mold, and thus I tend more to fall into the second camp of opinion. It felt to me like a psychological thriller for people who probably don't watch many psychological thrillers and haven't experienced some better, older examples of the genre, but that's fine, really. If it could have the same impact on someone who probably wouldn't watch that kind of film as Taxi Driver had on me, there's no real harm. I have little knowledge of the alleged political controversies surrounding the film, and no interest in them; I daresay they are the usual manufactured internet media clicking-points.
"Remember, remember, we live in a society."
But with the media in mind I might as well at least discuss the film in a broader context and in regards to where I thought it succeeded. My favourite part of the film, much to the surprise of my theatregoing companion, was the moment in the film in which the Joker's alter ego, Arthur Fleck, is watching De Niro's character's talk show and fantasises about being invited onto the stage as an audience member to talk about his life and experiences, to fulfill his perceived destiny to make people happy. This part in particular struck me as a unique moment which seemed somewhat rare in this kind of film, something I've only ever seen in contemporary media represented in the indie computer game Actual Sunlight, which features a recurring element of the player character, a severely depressed office drone, fantasising about being interviewed so that he will have an audience for his, as he sees it, uniquely interesting opinions and worldview.
"Bruce Wayne, you don't even know
the society you live in."
I think imagining oneself being interviewed and having a captive, sympathetic audience to which one may disseminate one's (supposedly) unique personality is a common daydream, and I was struck by the effectiveness of this moment early in the film. It characterises the Joker as a man who fundamentally craves attention, who sees himself as "special" and who only needs the everyday people to recognise his quirky uniqueness to feel complete. Indeed, I was so struck by the perceptiveness of this moment that I was disappointed that I felt like nothing in the film after that quite lived up to it for me, and I dearly wished that when Joker finally appeared on the talk show for real that he had been able to adopt the confidence and sympathy of his fantasy only to reveal that, as a result of his own mental health issues, society's negligence and a willingness to succumb to his negative impulses, a desire to inflict violence and cause chaos had emerged through his achievement of his dream, fantasy or delusion.
"We all live in a society."
But it was not to be. I know I'm too immersed in the Batman lore from years of watching films and cartoon shows, playing Batman video games and reading comic books, but I never quite saw the Joker in Arthur Fleck; his ranting fury on the talk show didn't say "Joker" to me, his insistence on not being political soured by his focus on how society ignored him. This was not the elemental agent of chaos depicted in The Dark Knight or in the many incarnations voiced by Hamill. However, I'm obliged to recognise that my own heavy preconceptions coloured my impression.
"Travis Bickle lived in a society too,
and look what happened to him."
What I do think is interesting in regards to all of this, however, putting aside how "Jokery" I thought Phoenix's "Joker" was, is how this film sits as part of a recent trend of films dealing with the relationship between mental health issues and contemporary media. Both 2014's Welcome to Me and 2017's Ingrid Goes West (which incidentally features a secondary character who is obsessed with Batman) explored how modern culture's media- and social media-driven fixation with the pursuit of fulfilment through public attention can react explosively with poorly-treated mental health issues, and as a further exploration of that theme Joker is at least functional as another remark in the conversation. Whether it, or indeed any of these films, gives a reasonable answer, is another matter; then again, perhaps there is no wholly reasonable answer. I'm certainly inclined to listen to arguments which hold both views: that the film advocates a more social approach to mental health care, and that it unfairly implies that people with mental health issues are violent criminals just waiting to emerge. Phoenix's performance, if not the direction or story in particular, at least invite discussion of the film as part of that recent thematic trend in filmmaking.
"Can you introduce me as...
someone who lives in a society?"
Joker is an adequate film with some interesting moments and, as many have said, a strong core performance. I merely thought that it hit its peak, for me at least, much too early. My chief recommendation, as I made to some friends today, is that if you've never seen Joker but you've also never seen Taxi Driver, watch Taxi Driver first. And watch Welcome to Me and Ingrid Goes West too; they're both worth your time, maybe more than another chin-in-hands frowning over DC's eighty-year-old clown.

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...

Hawkeye
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
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.

Shazam!
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.

Aquaman
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.

Venom
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.

Hereditary
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.