Wednesday, 22 February 2017

My Thoughts on Captain America: Civil War

Released after Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was equally excited to see what the latest instalment of the Captain America franchise had to offer. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have certainly proved themselves capable of directing a mega-franchise. In fact Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favourite film from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the idea of turning one of the most significant comic book events into a 2 hour film was always going to be a challenge. And the end result is something that’s entertaining but also deeply flawed. 

Firstly, the action set pieces are pretty special. The chase scene between Bucky, Cap and Black Panther both shows the Russo brother's eye for filming action, but it also proved to be a well-conceived way of introducing the character of Black Panther. Of course, the airport scene is the clear highlight of the entire film, again suitably introducing the latest Spiderman into the mix. Overall from a typical blockbuster standpoint, it was an action-driven one that looks and sounds good.

However my main problem with Civil War boils down to the writing. Liberties were taken to transfer the renowned comic series Civil War onto the screen, and it evidently proved too grand and complex a challenge. The film attempts to simultaneously highlight and showcase the division within the Avengers, emphasise the changing attitudes towards them, introduce the likes of Spiderman and Black Panther, and pave the way for the Infinity War storyline. And the film never really succeeds at explaining any of those narrative elements. Instead we're given a series of absurd coincidences, woeful justifications and a questionable level of hypocrisy.

But the more worrying problem is that when you step back and look at the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, the only narrative tread that is connecting it all together is through the arrival of Thanos. Civil War attempts to use the aftermath of Sokovia, New York and Washington (with some laughable death tolls) to justify the film’s conflict; the UN enforcing a registration act on the Avengers. There’s no global tension or resentment towards the Avengers. Instead you have frustrated government officials and passing comments from news stations, but there isn’t an atmosphere of anger towards superhero kind which feels decidedly necessary to the entire story. 

In my opinion, Marvel really needs to actually do something significant with the overall narrative of it’s universe, something with genuine consequences. In fact Marvel did this with the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D and the rise of Hydra during the events of Winter Soldier, but never really built anything decent from it. Civil War has similar opportunities to instigate real repercussions, but the film plays it far too safe. The death of James Rhodes (Warmachine) would have added some emotional weight to the conflict. Meanwhile the entire premise of a divide and conflict between Captain America and Iron Man is subsequently made redundant through an email between the two at the end. It's all too safe. 

In the battle between the superhero blockbusters, Civil War proved to be the better overall package when compared with Batman Vs Superman. But after watching it, I still think that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is my favourite of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Civil War had the action set-pieces, the characters and the visuals, but I don’t have a urge to watch the film again and continue to ask “Why is there a Civil War in the first place?”. 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

My Thoughts on Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange was just released in Japan, three months after its US release. However it’s the first Marvel film of the last couple of years that I haven’t rushed to the cinema to watch. In fact, I didn’t necessarily want to see it in the first place because of my lack of interest in the character. 

Until now Marvel had avoided the concept of magic in its cinematic universe. Scarlet Witch’s lack of “chaos magic” being a clear example. Instead Doctor Strange immediately showcases the unique approach to sorcery and wizardry during the opening scenes as The Ancient One battles Kaecilius and his forces. Put simply, the film looks and sounds fantastic. Strange’s introduction into the astral plane and dimensional shifts is a dazzling acid trip of colours, shapes and animations. The dizzying New York fight sequence between Strange, Mordo and Kaecilius is almost too hectic. I actually found myself briefly looking away from the screen in order to refocus. It’s an impressive set of action sequences that contrasts well with the franchise’s typical use of explosions and fistfights. My only issue is that while the environments and the effects are spectacular, the character models dancing around these kaleidoscopic set-pieces aren’t as polished. 

Story-wise, for the Marvel Universe to include Doctor Strange it was definitely justified in creating an origin film for such a unique character. We see Strange’s progression and transformation from the arrogant neurosurgeon to “Master of the Mystic Arts”. In fact the film wastes little time in showing Strange’s growth as an individual. One minute he’s struggling to use his hands, the next he’s surpassing his mentors and teachers. The film also does a good job at hinting at the grander scale and scope of Strange’s world. A multitude of dimensions, time manipulation, and the global nature of the Sanctums create a character, property and the basis for a plethora of interesting opportunities and situations in the future. 

But for all the film tries to differentiate itself from it’s Marvel counterparts, it still follows the typical narrative progression of any traditional superhero film. And with that comes a lot of the same, reoccurring problems. The most disappointing being the villain. Marvel yet again squanders the opportunity to present a villain of note. Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favourite actors and very capable of playing captivating foes. The problem lies in creating a balance between developing the protagonist and the antagonist, which the very nature of an “origin story” restricts. The story’s focus is purely on Strange, and Mikkelsen’s motivations and character are thus largely relegated to exposition and incoherent babble. In fact by the end of the film, his character withers away in the background in order to introduce the real villain Dormammu, who is equally trivialised in the last 10 minutes. With a wealth of villains in it’s universe, its frustrating and worrying that Marvel can’t seem to forge a character with any lingering danger or presence. 

In regards to the titular character, Benedict Cumberbatch certainly looks the part and he can wave his arms in a convincing manner. At times while the script falters and so too does his accent, his charisma proves just enough to create an engaging character. But I’m still not convinced that he is an actor worthy of his popularity or high esteem.  Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are great in their supporting roles, but Rachel McAdams is left by the wayside to question her own function in the film.

For me, Dr Strange wasn’t the evolutionary step in the Marvel franchise many critics have deemed it to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable film with fantastic visuals. But it lacks a certain narrative charm or individualism that feels necessary with the character and the property. If Strange is indeed part of the next Avengers instalment, then I’ll be interested to see how they frame him with the likes of Hawkeye and Captain America. With a character so omnipotent, it seems pretty laughable to have him levitating next to a purple-dressed archer.

Monday, 30 January 2017

My Thoughts on Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

The superhero genre continued its dominance of the box office in 2016. The year saw the likes of Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool and Doctor Strange. But there was one film that I was really looking forward to; Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. And while the film became the talking point for many cinema-goers and comic book fans, I don’t think it was for the reasons Warner Bros. Pictures and DC were hoping for. I personally wasn’t too thrilled that they had chosen to skip a sincerely needed sequel to Man of Steel in favour of making their own version of The Avengers. Yet while I understand and share the common complaints and criticisms that many had, I still found a significant amount of enjoyment from watching it. 

My early skepticism about the film’s narrative and the studio’s eagerness to please its audience came to fruition in a film with an unnecessarily contrived and cluttered plot. With the sole precursor to Snyder’s “DC Universe” being an origin story for Superman, the task of establishing an entire franchise in 151 minutes and with little setup was a disaster waiting to happen. I’d argue that a considerable amount of the narrative issues could have been alleviated by a Man of Steel 2. The iconic question “Does the world really need Superman?”, the notion of him being the last Kryptonian, the “complex” character and motivations of Lex Luthor, and the existence of other superheroes could have been addressed in a story told immediately after the destruction of Metropolis and General Zod’s death. This would have suitably set the framework for a future confrontation with Batman and the eventual formation of the Justice League.

I particularly hated Jesse Eisenberg’s turn as Lex Luthor which was a completely dreadful and unnecessary attempt to reinvent the quintessential villain. And it hurts even more knowing that he is now a permanent part of this franchise. Elsewhere, the previously strong approach to Louis Lane’s character in Man of Steel was squandered by her reduction to the damsel in distress role yet again. Put simply, Batman Vs Superman suffers from a monumentally shoddy approach to its writing.

So what did I actually like about the film? First, I love the look of the film. I’ve stated numerous times that while Zack Snyder’s filmography is a hodgepodge of quality, his understanding of the visual side of film is pretty good. From Superman standing in front the US Capitol building to Bruce Wayne’s apocalyptic nightmare, Batman Vs Superman feels and looks very much like the pages of a comic book. Meanwhile the titular fight, though brief and enhanced with digital effects, manages to capture the weight of these two titans being thrown around. It’s simply a joy to watch. 

Second, Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/ Batman was undoubtably the best part of the entire film. I can even excuse Synder’s vision of the capped crusader as a cold-blooded murderer, unlike many. This version of Bruce Wayne is weathered, spent and bleak, which is perfectly shown in his tense exchanges with Alfred. The entire warehouse scene in particular, vigorously displayed a new approach to the iconic character that was brutish and terrifying. I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Batfleck, especially with in the eventual standalone film. I also thought Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman offered a pretty stellar performance in her limited screen time.

In the end, Warner Bros. Pictures’ haste to achieve the same dominance as Marvel backfired and the studio is reeling from it. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy against the studio or DC, but I feel that in the wake of Marvel’s success, comparisons are inevitably going to be drawn between the two. And on that basis, Warner and DC are going to struggle to compete. Wonder Woman is on the horizon and so too is the Justice League, and if those fail to turn heads, then I’m afraid that we'll likely see a revamping of the franchise yet again in the near future. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Favourites of 2016: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

After re-watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently, I decided to go back and read my article  exclaiming it to be one of my favourite films of 2015. After reading it numerous times and disagreeing with around sixty percent of what I had written, I feel I was too hasty in giving such glowing praise to what was essentially a soft reboot with little originality. 2016 saw the release of the franchise’s first “stand alone” film, Rogue One. And as per usual, the hype and marketing was omnipresent. The trailers looked great, the cast was amazing and director Gareth Edwards was an interesting pick. However I was still sceptical about the Disney’s attempts to revisit old ground, especially with the direct connections to my beloved original trilogy. 

The story, which stems from a sentence in the opening crawl of A New Hope, isn’t one of complex narrative twists and turns: There’s a group of ragtag, good guys. Meanwhile the bad guys have made a destructive weapon that threatens the galaxy. So the good guys have to get the weapon’s secret plans. It’s a safe film that uses the chronological setting to tell an engaging story while introducing characters both old and new. The film fortunately refrains from leaving an abundance of open questions and chooses it’s lasting “franchise significance” in a sensible and intelligent manner. The film finishes, and so too does the tale being told. 

What particularly stands out are the visuals and cinematography. The costly CGI “resurrection” of Peter Cushing’s character Grand Moff Tarkin is astonishing and I personally felt that it was justified in the narrative. But I hope that this doesn’t become a future trend of the film industry. The concept of seeing lost stars such as Robin Williams and Alan Rickman in new projects isn’t one that feels humble or progressive. Elsewhere, one thing that really stuck me was the sense of scale. Gareth Edwards has been notable for his prowess at showcasing scope and perspective. His directorial debut Monsters and reboot of Godzilla managed to successfully convey the magnitude of the events depicted on screen. In Rogue One, the new variation of AT-AT Walkers, Imperial Star Destroyers and especially the Death Star are presented in a way that gives a visual resonance which matches their intimidating presence throughout the film. The Death Star isn’t simply a matte painting, but a looming and ever-present force of terror. From the guerrilla warfare on Jedha to the rebels storming the beaches of Scarif, its hard to deny that Rogue One feels forceful and visceral in its presentation, which is helped by some excellent sound design. 

While I wouldn’t join the masses and exclaim that its a “dark, violent and grim film”, I will emphasis it’s overly-serious approach. Though I quite enjoyed the change of tone, the lighthearted banter and the occasionally quips aren’t enough to give a sense of humanity to the story’s characters, which is a major problem with Rogue One. I’m in complete agreement with the many criticisms surrounding the lack of character development. I’ve mentioned countless times that building engaging and deep characters is an important part of any film, especially one reliant on their motivations to the narrative cause. In a film where the majority of the audience already knows the fate of most of these individuals, it didn’t really do much to encourage any lasting sympathy towards their predictable demise. 

In the end, Rogue One was thoroughly enjoyable. However I’d be lying if my delight didn’t stem from my nostalgia for the franchise, especially seeing the Death Star and Imperial Walkers from the original trilogy. But even with a straightforward story and merely serviceable characters, I think it was definitely one of the best cinema experiences of 2016. 

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Spectre Review

Alongside Star Wars, James Bond was another major part of my childhood. While I grew up during Pierce Brosnan’s skint as Bond, Timothy Dalton has remained my favourite version of the iconic, British spy. Licence to Kill and The Living Daylights are the films that I still have fond memories of. Whether it’s The Pretender’s Where Has Everybody Gone? playing over Necros’ handiwork or a young Benecio Del Toro’s falling into machinery, these were films I watched constantly on TV. In regards to Daniel Craig’s turn as 007; it’s been a rather uneven road. Casino Royale is easily one of the best instalments in the entire franchise while Quantum of Solace is easily one of the worst. Meanwhile I personally felt that Skyfall, while critically and financially successful, was a rather average Bond film that certainly looked the part but failed to truly deliver. Yet even after a few rough patches and Spectre’s poorly conceived marketing months before its release, I was still relatively excited to see what returning director Sam Mendes would do. 

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there’s a lack of originality within the franchise, and action-cinema in general. It seems that in the wake and success of the Bourne Series, Bond has unsurprisingly been quick to dispense with the light-hearted nature and far-fetched narratives for a more grounded-in-current-affairs approach. And while I agree that this was the direction it needed to take, I feel that in doing so the series is losing its unique charm and character. The last two films attempted to reinvigorate a stagnant formula with a more personal story involving the loss of Vesper Lynd and Judi Dench’s Judi Dench with varied success. Bond has become gritty, dark and emotionless, forgetting the quintessential charm that made the franchise and character so iconic and beloved. 

Spectre has all the components of a engaging Bond film, but squanders its composition with poor writing and poor pacing. Hacking, double agents, secret organisations and government corruption sound good on paper, but the film fails to construct a coherent and engaging narrative from them. Extravagant locations, an Aston Martin with gadgets, and a serious henchman offer an sense of nostalgia towards the classic Bond films; On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and From Russia With Love. And while I respect the decision to return to a more traditional Bond, here it feels empty and too superficial. The inconsistent and questionable pacing of the film doesn’t alleviate these shortcomings, but further highlights them. The third act in particular is a scramble to simultaneously wrap up the film’s loose ends while intentionally dragging out the final confrontation, which should be impossible to do.

Daniel Craig has never struck me as “James Bond”. Cold, emotionless and increasingly monotonous, this is his forth outing and while 9 years have passed since Casino Royale, he still hasn’t distinguished this version of Bond. He’s a capable actor, but I feel that whether it’s down to the writing or Craig’s frustrated attitude towards the role, he’s left Bond unlikable and tiresome. Meanwhile Christoph Waltz who usually lights up the screen with his quirky energy and jovial delivery is bitterly disappointing as quintessential Bond villain, Blofeld. Lea Seydoux gives a strong first impression, only to revert to the stereotypical damsel-in-distress that her character ironically deplores. The talent is there, but the writing doesn’t allow it to flourish. 

Spectre’s attempts to return to the traditional framework of the Bond series is more of a confused and lacklustre trip down memory lane than a true instalment in the franchise. It’s a shame that while director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer Dennis Gassner have created a visual striking film, everything else is left wilted and lifeless. From the writing to the mediocre performances, Spectre was a bitter disappointment and an unfortunate, missed opportunity. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Favourites of 2015: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Some of my earliest cinema-going memories are of the re-releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Funnily enough I can’t actually remember seeing A New Hope until it’s VHS release. I collected the action figures, the posters, even the Darth Vader drink cups, which all still remain up in the storage attic. Lightsaber duels with my brother, and pretending my bicycle was an X-Wing, it’s fair to say that Star Wars was an important part of my childhood. But I also share the customary disappointment towards the prequel trilogy. As a result, the notion of another series of squandered potential in the hands of creator George Lucas was understandably disheartening. Yet the news of J. J. Abrams sitting in the director’s chair after the successful reboot of Star Trek put some of those fears to rest. 

The Force Awakens doesn’t stray too far from the tried and tested elements of its predecessors, yet manages to construct new foundations and offer enough intrigue to establish itself as the beginning of a new trilogy. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega’s entrance into the Star Wars Universe offers a new lease of life and perspective. A determined scavenger with a mysterious past, and a reformed Storm Trooper allows for a compelling set of characters with an engaging chemistry. Meanwhile Adam Driver’s menacing Kylo Ren, Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux and Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke leave a strong impression that gives glimpses into the true state of the “Dark Side”, even if it’s first oughting ends in a predictable loss. The return of the franchise’s classic characters; Han Solo, Leia Organa and Chewbacca carefully and respectfully pass the torch to the charismatic youth that hope to ascend to similar stature. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a welcome and satisfying end to a rather disappointing year in cinema over here in Japan. From the iconic text crawl accompanied by John Williams’ score, to the sounds of Tie Fighter blaster cannons, J. J. Abrams has recreated some of the magic and spirit that has made the Star Wars Universe so endearing and iconic. And while questions still remain to be answered, I can’t argue that the film left me with a smile. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Short Review: The Guest

The Guest was a film that I had shrugged off after watching it’s rather underwhelming trailer. To be brutally honest, I felt indifferent to a film taking a generic thriller story and drowning it in John Carpenter-esque style, merely jumping on the bandwagon of films like 2011’s excellent Drive. “If I wanted to see a 1980 styled cat and mouse thriller, I’d just watch a 1980s cat and mouse thriller.”  Yet after borrowing my brother’s copy of it, I was actually taken aback by how much I enjoyed it. 

A soldier returns to pays his respects to his friend’s mourning family. He’s extremely polite and handsome but there’s a dark side beneath all the smiles and good manners. Here lies a systematic psychopath whose sole intention is to terrorise a family with their own individual conflicts, and there’s nothing that can possible stop him. Dan Steven’s titular role is deviously charming, but utterly warped in his actions towards the family. Even when his real intensions are revealed, there’s a twisted desire to see him succeed and that’s credit to Steven’s performance. 

The Guest doesn’t necessarily do anything original, taking a very basic premise and running with it. In fact, the film plays more like a nostalgic trip down the gritty, uncompromising roads of the cult classics of the late 70s and 80s. Blood squibs, a synth soundtrack, long shots of endless roads and an unstoppable killing machine conjure thoughts of The Terminator and Halloween’s Michael Myers. The cinematography and production is well-thought out and coordinated, and the soundtrack is great.

The Guest is much like the 1980’s cult thriller The Hitcher staring Rutger Haeur. Both are engaging thrillers that centre on a fabulous performance from the film’s lead, and produce a constant, underlying level of tension and sheer energy. They’ve both got similar pacing problems and sinks into an outrageous third act, yet still offer an enjoyable time. Recommended.