Friday, 27 April 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

"Fun isn't something one considers when balancing the universe. But this does put a smile on my face."

Here we are, over the course of 18 movies Marvel have slowly shaped our entire cinematic landscape and redefined the way we think of franchises, all leading up to this moment. It is safe to say that this kind of film is unprecedented in cinema history. No other studio has succeeded in carrying out a sustained narrative over the course of as many movies as Marvel, all with the intent to draw audiences in via the same route comics readers would get attached to different names and titles. So this is it.

When the universe is threatened by Thanos (Josh Brolin), a power crazed totalitarian seeking to unite all six infinity stones and use them to wreak havoc on the cosmos, the Avengers must unite from across realms and planets to face their biggest and most dangerous threat so far.

I’m almost unsure of how to even measure this kind of movie. Do I see it as the culmination of all of its 18 predecessors? Is it the epitome of blockbuster entertainment as we know it? All I know for sure is that it is far from merely a regular movie, or even a regular Marvel movie for that matter. ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ has a kind of built in audience appeal that could only come about from a full decade of slowly gaining a loyal audience who have placed firm trust in the creators and their ability to entertain and marvel (pun intended).

Obviously the film is crowded, somewhat convoluted and gigantic in scale, but that was always going to be a given. Where ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ triumphs is how it so fundamentally understands how its audience relate to and care about the characters who occupy the story. It effortlessly endears you to its characters, fleshes out the stakes and sense of dramatic consequence that will befall them should they fail in their mission, then it just lets the stunning spectacle say the rest. Make no mistake, even if this were empty spectacle (which it is not) I would argue that it would still make for the price of a ticket.

The Russo Brothers have displayed an acute blend of style and personality, as far back as their time directing ‘Community’. Their filmmaking renders the most enormous of set pieces as personal affairs  which retain a key focal point in how they zero in on the characters at the heart of the action. Their camera never gets lost amid all of the chaos and they seem consistently interested in what the heroes themselves are going through, both physically and emotionally. There is a kinetic energy to how they compose an action sequence, giving every super powered punch a sense of visceral impact.  

While the narrative essentially boils down to a somewhat simple premise (bad guy wants to do bad stuff, good guys try to stop bad stuff), it’s the dynamic between the ensemble cast of characters that bestows the film’s story with a unique involvement to it. The characters emotional arcs are what underpin the action and intergalactic conflicts, and those arcs are always presented in a way that feels natural to the script. There’s no point where the movie outright halts the flow of the story to tell us how the characters are feeling, instead splicing their progression with the unfolding plot whilst making the action integral to their development.

The script also strikes an excellent balance of tone. There are some truly heavy themes and consequences within ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ but the film never descends too deeply into this grim undertone so as not to lose the attention of its core audience. There is still plenty of character driven humour and cathartically heroic moments that make the whole spectacle thoroughly entertaining. But watch out for some striking gut punches that might make even the most casual viewer well up slightly. I also have to give huge credit to Alan Silvestri, whose musical score is so sweeping and epic that it never fails to convey the utter grandeur of every trial these heroes undergo.

But even with all of these elements at play, it would have been shockingly easy for ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ to become a parade of non-sequiturs. What ties these unfolding events together is Thanos himself, the movie’s main antagonist whose journey to accomplish his goal is phenomenal. There’s a school of thought that the best villains are ones who sincerely believe themselves to be the heroes and that is absolutely true of Thanos. His motivations are not sympatric necessarily but they are based in rationale, and due to the script strongly establishing what kind of person he is the viewer has no trouble understanding why his specific attitude would lead him to the conclusions he reaches. His progression over the course of the movie creates a thematic undertone that really ties all of the events and characters together.

Josh Brolin’s performance is also outstanding, possessing such an air of menace that Thanos always feels like a prevalent threat to our protagonists. But at the same time Brolin crafts several intimate character details through his performance that paint a hauntingly complex portrait. Other fantastic performances include Chris Hemsowrth once again embodying the godlike tendencies that ground Thor as a completely believable presence. The usually charismatic Robert Downey Jr portrays a much more concerned Tony Stark, as if even he is aware of the gravitas concerning what is about to happen. Elizabeth Olson is also brilliant for reasons I won’t dare spoil, adding a large amount of emotional resonance to the third act.

But Marvel have placed their trust in so many talented actors that it should come as no surprise that every major player within the film brings their best effort. No one is phoning it in or merely confident in their own assurance. They all re-establish the characters via their performances, embody who those characters are and proceed to react within the story in such a way that they instil great weight into the script just by being a noticeable presence. Seeing these heroes on screen together is one thing, but to have them feel like real fleshed out characters with their own emotional drives and consequences, well that’s something that has only ever been achieved here.

Spectacular on a level that will satisfy any fan of the MCU, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is truly the culmination of a full decade of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s going to be an agonising year until the next instalment.

Result: 8/10

Monday, 23 April 2018

Recapping the MCU - Guardians of the Galaxy

It’s always intriguing to wonder just how well a proven franchise could do based off its own merits. If they could just detach themselves from their brand name and make a movie that would have to stand on its own as an entertaining and worthwhile experience. Now obviously it’s hardly accurate to say that Marvel did exactly that in 2014 since they were a proven commodity with a widely established fan base, but even to the studio that had released one of the biggest films of all time, a project as unknown and as frankly weird as ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ seemed like a long shot.

Even if you were someone that entrusted yourself to the MCU in 2014, it’s highly dubious that you had any knowledge relating to this particular property. After all most of us had only just finished memorising our routine to pretend we knew who that purple guy at the end of ‘The Avengers’ was (it’s….Thanos, right?). But the idea of a crafting a movie around the star power of that guy from ‘Parks and Rec’, 2009 Uhura, a former wrestler that isn’t The Rock, a talking racoon and a sentient tree….well obviously works as a recipe for box office success, of course.

The point of all of this is that the success of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ really is a testament to how well James Gunn’s film was able to introduce an entirely new cast of characters and make them resonate with audiences across the world. Much like Joss Whedon did two years prior, Gunn structures his film around the idea of these talented but flawed individuals learning to join together. Their unification is so cathartic because it’s built into the foundations of how the film progresses and flows. He uses his wide shots that feature all of the Guardians as sparingly as he can, so as to create a genuinely fulfilling reaction on the occasions when they are all occupying the same shot.

If any superhero movie has been so utterly elevated by the talent of its cast more than ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ then I simply haven’t seen it. Every actor bursts onto the screen in a role that is both larger than life but also achingly human. We come to understand Peter Quill’s insecurities just as much as we love his brashness, the self-identifying ‘Star Lord’ line starts as a punchline and ends as a heartstring. Chris Pratt embodies both moments flawlessly, possessing such an acute sense of comedic timing whilst also being fully capable of making the sincere moments land as they should.

The same goes for all of the Guardians, though none of them are explored to the same degree as Peter. But the film makes such an effort to draw a connective line between the characters backstories and their current actions that it’s easy for the likes of Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel to turn a quirky trait into a microcosm of tragedy. With the Guardians dominating the scenery so much it’s understandable why Lee Pace to take a more measured approach. Despite Ronan the Accuser being one of the weaker MCU villains his dynamic with the protagonists is used to great comedic effect.

But ultimately that sense of sincerity works so well within ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ because Gunn genuinely believes in it. So many writers try to shoehorn in an aspect of earnestness within their scripts only for it to fall flat because of how obvious it is that it’s an afterthought. But Gunn weaves these genuine emotional beats throughout his screenplay. He clearly has a deep affection for these characters he has built up, so feels a sense of responsibility for how their development is handled across the movie.

The reason those emotional beats feel so earned is also due to how well Gunn’s writing draws the audience in. His humour and energetic pacing keep the audience’s attention in a way that never feels desperate. It speaks volumes that Gunn was able to open his movie with a highly traumatic portrait only to then launch into high concept space adventures and never risk feeling tonally inconsistent. His dialogue is sharp and witty, but also loud and brash when the mood requires it. More than anything else it shows the deft touch of a writer who is confident in his characters and understands how they would interact with one another. Humour can’t feel out of place if it is the logical response a certain character would have to a particular scenario, and Gunn writes his way into accommodating both of those factors.

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is at its least interesting when it tries to tie this story into something larger. The deviations it takes to explain how exactly this fits into the broader context of the MCU do slow the film down somewhat, whilst also feeling more like blatant exposition than the more naturally conveyed plot mechanics at other points throughout the movie. But despite flaws there really isn’t anything that could lessen the sheer entertainment that this film brings. Certain critics have been accused of going easy on Marvel just for the sake of entertainment, but I wouldn’t argue for that being a bad thing. After all if I had as much fun with every movie as I did with this one, I’d be inclined to be positive more often as well.

Result: 8/10

Recapping the MCU - Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Once again I find myself being unable to be contrarian because the general consensus seems to indicate that many view ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ as the best instalment of the MCU, a sentiment that I have to agree with. That being said I was curious to see how well it has aged within the context of the MCU since I last watched it as well as how it holds up as a singular entity, and both cases it proved to be just as phenomenal as I remembered.

Firstly, and perhaps most impressively, ‘The Winter Soldier’ is the only MCU movie to actually build upon and develop the themes it establishes in its opening act. Too many Marvel movies succeed at conveying an overreaching sense of development for their stories and characters but only really address their thematic conceits when it is convenient for the script. Themes of authority, trust, security, paranoia and history are all conveyed and developed in terms of how the characters navigate the story and interact with one another.

The way in which Joe and Anthony Russo re-contextualise these themes so that they fit within the comic book universe in which the film takes place whilst also being broad enough to relate to any audience member is a feat in of itself. Their direction grounds the film in a way that no other MCU entry has whilst still retaining those wonderfully energetic comic book sensibilities. They basically treat their subject as any other thriller might, even if this one just happens to involve a hypnotised robotic arm wielding assassin.

From the opening scene the Russos establish this narrative momentum that never lets up. There are quieter moments in which they allow the characters to establish themselves and sink into the environment of the movie, but overall the plot just rushes forward in a way that keeps the audience in a constant state of tension without ever leaving them behind. The thrilling set pieces are hung on a narrative that blends the twists and paranoia of the political thrillers that so clearly influenced the Russos, with the pulpy imagination of any classic comic book storyline.

The vehicle for this rollercoaster is Chris Evans’ endlessly endearing performance as Captain America, although in this movie it honestly feels more appropriate to call him Steve Rogers because despite his superhero physique he is as human as the protagonist of a classic thriller. Evans creates such an acute portrayal of a jaded soldier adjusting to a new world, but not in a way that feels overbearing or indulgent. Instead the writers allow Evans to subtly evoke empathy from his sudden displacement, whilst at the same time providing a firm motive for his ideologies.

But ‘The Winter Soldier’ feels just as capable as an emsemble piece as it does a character study. I don’t think Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has ever been as interesting or complex as her portrayal and use within the story of this movie. Anthony Mackie does a tremendous job at grounding Sam Wilson with an empathetic characterisation before taking flight as Falcon. In complete contrast to his turn from ‘The First Avenger’ Sebastian Stan embodies a truly menacing and intimidating stance to make the Winter Soldier a formidable foe, whilst also retaining enough humanity so as to evoke sympathy. Samuel L Jackson is once again effortlessly brilliant as Nick Fury. The addition of Robert Redford is also an inspired touch, particularly because he’s playing the kind of governmental antagonist he himself would have been running from back in the 1970s.

The action of ‘The Winter Soldier’ really is something else to behold though. Despite borrowing from the Paul Greengrass school of editing a little too much for my liking that’s only personal preference though and I can’t deny that if the aim was to seek influence from Greengrass they did so in all the right ways. Rather than masking the artifice of their scenes through fast editing and camera movement, the Russos employ the technique to maintain a frenetic and chaotic atmosphere to their action. But by cutting at the pitch perfect moment and utilising some rapid visual storytelling with every shot, they sacrifice none of the clarity. With a greater emphasis on hand to hand combat as well there’s a real visceral impact to the way the punches, kicks and shield throws land in ‘The Winter Soldier’. They maintain a consistent camera height and continuous direction of movement for each edit which only adds greater immersion for the audience without losing that kinetic edge.

Then spread throughout all of this tight plotting, confident storytelling and breath taking action are the extra flourishes that truly mark ‘The Winter Soldier’ out as a classic of the superhero genre. The production design is superb on all fronts, transitioning from the high tech world of SHIELD to the more retro side of the story with relative ease. The sound design is impeccable, as is the methodical and rhythmic musical score by Henry Jackman. They even have a cameo for Danny Pudi, as if there wasn’t any other way to make me more enamoured with this movie.

Thrilling action, intelligent storytelling and possessing deep thematic resonance, ‘The Winter Soldier’ is the MCU’s strongest effort to date.

Result: 9/10

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Recapping the MCU - Thor: The Dark World

Now we come to what is in the minds of many the worst film to come out of the MCU, and as much as I would like to be contrarian and elaborate on why it’s a misunderstood gem, I can’t because ‘Thor: The Dark World’ is a truly forgettable experience. It may be a bit premature to reveal that statement in my review but there really is no way to avoid it, since the fact that the movie is forgettable is honestly the only reason I really bother to remember it at all.

But there are still some good qualities to be found within ‘Thor: The Dark World’. On the whole the cast manages to deliver some all-encompassing performances that perfectly encapsulate and convey the distinct motives of their characters. Hemsworth and Hiddlestone make for great counterparts as Thor and Loki, with their entire physicality clashing just as much as their ideologies. But at the same time their dynamic always alludes to a sense of understanding. I think one of the reasons why the scene in which they work together to deceive Malekith is regarded as one of the better moments of this movie is due to how it conveys the notion that the two of them would make a truly formidable duo if they could only put aside their differences.

Speaking of which that is another more interesting aspect of this movie as well, the action scenes. Despite being hung on a plot that is as generic and predictable as they come, ‘Thor: The Dark World’ boasts some highly inventive action sequences that manage to intertwine genuine stakes, clear causality and even a decent amount of comedy. The final battle involving the nine realms aligning is particularly entertaining both for the innovative way the script employs the concept but also how it elevates a relatively straightforward action narrative.

I’m afraid I have now run out of nice things to say. If I could point to any one aspect in which this movie fails to grab my attention it would have to be with the direction. Alan Taylor has an illustrious career of as a director of numerous acclaimed TV shows from ‘Deadwood’ to ‘Game of Thrones’ but he fails to bring any uniqueness or sense of craftsmanship to this project. It’s probably the most solid thesis to the argument that Marvel make their movies via committee without care for artistic merit because that is exactly what this instalment feels like. The visual style is dynamic and unengaging, coming across as flat and lifeless as if this is nothing more than a filler episode for a long running TV series.

But I don’t want to place blame on Taylor as if this is entirely or even partially his fault, because the narrative gives him so little to work with on a directorial level. Taylor’s direction works wonders with the sequences that are already inherently interesting, but when hampered with meandering conversations, narrative non-sequiturs and entire sequences devoted to honouring characters we have absolutely no reason to care for, there’s not much one can do to elevate it.

The storytelling throughout the movie is probably some of the most derivative in the history of the MCU, going as far to devote an entire prologue to convey information that Odin will just state out loud later in the movie anyway. None of the characters have clear arcs or develop in any meaningful way, if anything the movie seems to bend over backwards to try and maintain the status quo. It actually gets to the point where the film almost loses any sense of tension or credibility from how often it tricks the audience. Thor’s hand is cut off but then surprise, turns out it isn’t. Loki is dead but then surprise, turns out he isn’t. Odin is on the throne but then surprise, turns out he isn’t. How you expect your audience to be invested when you keep pulling the same manipulative story tactics time and time again.

But perhaps the biggest issue within ‘Thor: The Dark World’ is its antagonist, a term that I use lightly in this case because even the movie seems to side line Malekith in favour of Loki. It pains me to say this because I remember being truly excited with the notion of Christopher Ecclestone brining his talent to a platform as big as Marvel. But not only is Malekith’s entire design completely expressionless (they took the Oscar Isaac Apocalypse route of plastering a gifted character actor in as much make up as humanly possible) but his motivation and characterisation is so lacking that it is genuinely difficult to think of any defining traits of the character. There is literally no substance, no sense of stakes, no value or any worth to anything Malekith’s presence brings to this film. He exists as an obligation to move the plot forward and has no other discernible function.

Forgettable and derivative in almost every regard, ‘Thor: The Dark World’ is still the MCU’s worst effort despite some entertaining snippets.

Result: 3/10

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Recapping the MCU - Iron Man 3

I always find it best to think of ‘Iron Man 3’ more in terms of it being a Shane Black movie rather than as a Marvel movie, because it works much better under the circumstances of the former rather than the latter. In the grand continuity of the MCU ‘Iron Man 3’ has wlays been somewhat of an outlier, hardly ever referenced and rarely acknowledged which I think is due to the studio not really knowing how to go about taking its events into account in their franchise. But as a Shane Black movie it’s everything you could want from a superhero film directed by Black.

I think this dynamic of Marvel/Black is best exemplified by the Mandarin twist. I have to deal with it right away because it’s the elephant in the room, the make or break point for many MCU fans and how they decide the judge this movie. On the one hand, I fully accept that the Mandarin is a character with a long and highly interesting history that is now wasted in the light of this storytelling decision. However, putting the source material and the “what could have been” attitude aside, I think this is pretty interesting twist. In an era where so many comic book movies are hampered by this obligation to serve their fans, it was refreshing to see Black throw that out of the window and treat the characters in whatever way he saw fit for his story.

That attitude bleeds into almost every aspect of Black’s screenplay and direction. He wants to tackle this latest outing for Tony Stark as less of a chapter and more as a singular entity. It’s why he chooses to establish almost every issue that drives the narrative within this film, and then refuses to carry anything over into a potential sequel. In a certain sense that works to create a cohesive and contained narrative, but as I said it also serves to make the movie feel tonally jarring from the rest of Marvel’s catalogue, including the preceding two ‘Iron Man’ films.  

Even the basic psychics and logic of this movie seem different to the rest of the universe, from Tony supposedly being arrogant enough to outright challenge the Mandarin to a fight by giving him his own address (it’s not so much the challenge that annoys me but the fact that he issues it and is then totally surprised that a bunch of gunships arrive to kill him) or how destructible the suits are. But again, these are inconsistences in the franchise, but not within how the film establishes itself within the first act.

That being said, even as a singular entity the film has some issues in how it paces itself. The second act drags and in retrospect is mostly forgettable. The script only addresses certain issues when it’s convenient and this creates a sense of inconsistency in terms of when each character’s issue will affect the plot. On top of that some of them are not resolved as much as they are made redundant. Tony’s PTSD seems to take a backseat two thirds of the way through, his history with Killian does’t feel like a prevalent part of their interaction and he spends so much of the movie separated from Pepper that it’s hard for their relationship difficulties to feel earned or developed.

But there is still so much to enjoy and admire within ‘Iron Man 3’. Every action scene is utterly spectacular and contains a level of grounded intimacy not usually found within the MCU’s bigger set pieces. Amid all of the chaos it’s always a character that our focus is rendered to rather than just empty spectacle. The action also does a brilliant job of conveying some of the movie’s better developed themes. For instance, the Mark 42 armour is repeatedly framed as a symbol for Tony’s self-destructive inner demons only to then be used as a way for him to destroy the external demon that is Killian.

Black also injects a lot of his own humour and stylistics into the movie that make it feel more at home as part of a trilogy with ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ and ‘The Nice Guys’ than to the prior Iron Man movies. Black takes great measures to keep Tony out of the suit as often as possible which I think serves two functions in his film. Partly to highlight the character riven journey that underpins the film’s main sense of development. But on top of that I wouldn’t be surprised if it was just to serve as a means for Black to frame Tony and his armour as completely separate entities, almost as if they’re part of some overblown buddy cop movie. They even share a dynamic that wouldn’t be out of place in that genre.

There are some misplaced and misused characters that hamper the otherwise excellent performances from the cast. As I said earlier Pepper is side-lined and separated for a good portion of the movie so Gwyneth Paltrow can’t help but feel like an afterthought despite a decent performance. Ben Kingsley does such brilliant job pulling off the threatening persona that it’s a shame when the rug is pulled out from underneath us. Guy Pearce’s persona seems to change so often and so radically that it’s hard for the actor to get a cohesive grasp on proceedings even if he executes each one decently. But amid all of this we can count on Robert Downey Jr to once again dominate the movie as he brings Tony Stark to life in a way only he can.

Functional as a Shane Black movie but problematic as a Marvel film, ‘Iron Man 3’ is a mixed but highly entertaining bag.

Result: 6/10

Recapping the MCU - The Avengers

Though it was only six years ago, it’s genuinely difficult to envision a Hollywood that existed before Marvel’s ‘The Avengers’ now. In an age where every major franchise wants to replicate exactly what Kevin Feige and his studio accomplished over the course of four years, all building up to this movie in 2012, it’s easy to overlook and understate just how monumental this film was. In that sense it’s also difficult to detach it from the ensuing hype and aftershocks that the film has continued to create to this day. In other words, it’s somewhat difficult to even judge it as just a movie.

It is also difficult to think of any movie in recent memory that has so completely epitomised the concept of pure blockbuster entertainment. There’s a brilliance to its narrative simplicity, a greatness to its character driven story and a wide appeal to its broad use of tone. It says a lot about how well a movie handles its exposition that a viewer could walk into ‘The Avengers’, without having seen any other MCU movie and still get a complete grasp pf what is happening.

Part of that is down to the aforementioned narrative. Though it’s far from complex the story and its ensuing structure give the film room to focus on what matters most, the characters. It makes their joining together a central conceit that constantly drives the plot forward. There is a reason why that now iconic shot of the superhero team finally united has such a cathartic effects, because the whole movie is structured around building up to that specific moment.

If anything it feels even more impressive in retrospect given how many superhero event movies seem to lack any narrative drive for their first act. We don’t receive any clarity or cohesion as we just watch things happening for an hour and then the plot kicks in. That it now the case with ‘The Avengers’ as the stakes are laid out perfectly within the first few minutes and then proceed to intertwine with the team as they are subsequently introduced, unfolding simultaneously with their arcs across the movie. This is the reason why the story never drags, why it never feels condescending to the audience and why it always contains a clear focus point from which to further the plot, all of which could have very easily befallen the movie.

With this ensemble another easy pitfall would be to have certain characters feel side-lined or underutilised but once again ‘The Avengers’ avoids this trap. Though some characters certainly get more screen time than others each player is endowed with a clear and concise arc that works to develop their personality as the plot rushes along. These moments of development are brilliantly placed throughout the movie. From small exchanges of dialogue to the little interactions that underpin the action, everyone has time to grow and change over the course of the film.  

The same can be said for how each character is used within the action scenes, particularly within that final battle across New York City. Each hero has a specific function and role that allows us to track their individual actions and in turn get a sense of the battle as a whole. Again it’s a common flaw within many blockbusters that an epic final battle can feel confused and cluttered but ‘The Avengers’ manoeuvres around that in how it allows the audience to have a firm hold on the geography of the scene, not just in the final battle but in all of the action scenes. It gives us a simple thought process of knowing which hero is trying to accomplish what, and then presents that in an interlinking manner.

As for the actors who play said heroes, they all sink so perfectly into their roles that it’s hard for me to even say there is a standout. I suppose Mark Ruffalo should receive specific praise given that unlike any other main character in the movie, he had to build his performance from the ground up. He had the added pressure of introducing a new persona for Bruce Banner/the Hulk as well as subsequently developing that persona, of which he did a fantastic job. Ruffalo’s Banner is more smooth and at ease with himself which only serves to make his subsequent transformation all the more jarring. But underneath that charisma is a clear darkness that he alludes to throughout the movie, which lends itself the deepening our understanding of the character and is internal dynamic.

Robert Downey Jr embodies the same tightrope walk between arrogance and confidence that made Tony Stark both compelling and watchable in his previous outings. Chris Hemsworth is still embodying the boastful in the role of Thor whilst retaining that streak of humanity that makes the god of thunder intriguing. Chris Evans performance keeps Captain America grounded, conveying the sense of man outside of his own time in the middle of a tough transition, but also distinctly dutiful. Scarlett Johansson continues to bestow Black Widow with all the intrigue and strength that makes the character such a valuable commodity. Jeremy Renner possesses this stoic mysticism that renders Hawkeye as an involving presence. The undercurrent of all these performances is that they establish a distinct characterisation but leave enough room for development, and to achieve that six times over in a single film is no small feat.

Though I do think Joss Whedon’s direction leaves a bit to be desired in terms of its visual dynamics, in that too many of the conversations and dialogue exchanges in the movie seem to be shot and edited in a conventional manner. But the way he conveys the action in the movie is a triumph of cinematic language. As I said before, he expertly makes the characters intrinsic to the way the action flows and develops. He manages to convey this through some phenomenal long takes that takes the audience through the entire landscape of the battle in a way that seems effortless.

‘The Avengers’ still represents blockbuster entertainment at its best. Containing fulfilling character arcs, thrilling action and a sense of spectacle that is magnificent to behold.  

Result: 8/10

Thursday, 12 April 2018

You Were Never Really Here

"I want you to hurt them."

As a fan of cinema I’m always conflicted over the idea of a filmmaker being as meticulous and as patient as the likes of Lynne Ramsay. On the one hand I obviously want her to work at a level that will allow her to achieve her full creative potential. But on the more selfish side of things, it’s really tough to wait that long for another amazing movie. Ramsey has distinguished herself as one of the most exciting directors of our age despite the fact that she has only directed four feature films in 19 years.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a combat veteran residing in New York. During the day he cares for his elderly mother and tries to keep a lid on his post-traumatic stress. At night he goes to work as a hired gun searchers for and rescues trafficked underage girls, whilst also bringing unspeakable violence to their abusers.

There are many elements of ‘You Were Never Really Here’ that feel somewhat familiar, evoking the likes of Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Park Chan-wook’s ‘Oldboy’. But beneath those surface level similarities, Ramsay uses her directorial prowess to understand and convey the thematic core of the story, creating something utterly original in the process. It’s a breath taking character study that is just as striking for its brutal violence as its poetic beauty. It can be thematically elusive and overtly abstract at times, but the film never loses its focus on its protagonist whom it deconstructs and analyses with astonishing clarity.

Bringing that character to life is Joaquin Phoenix who delivers a phenomenal performance. Sometimes my mind can’t even comprehend that this is the same actor who portrayed the temperamental Freddie Quell, or the tender Theo Twombly because every performance is so radically different and fully realised. Phoenix’s entire physicality is built around conveying a specific mood and sense of character. From the first few seconds of him arriving on screen, it is clear that Joe is a man burdened by something. Most of this is communicated with hardly any dialogue from Phoenix as well. From the general way he moves to the smallest details, it all adds to create a rounded and intricate portrait.

It’s a performance that goes hand in hand with the filmmaker’s intent, because Ramsay is a director who has always held a fascination with details. ‘You Were Never Really Here’ follows that trait as its visual language continually places a focus on the minutia’s of then narrative. Ramsay finds ways to further her narrative purely through these details which never fails to add a level of innovation to her method of storytelling. They also serve to elevate what is a fairly sparse narrative. ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is somewhat predictable in a scripting level, but the choices Ramsay makes in how she executes that plot are what bestow the movie with substance.

Another way in which Ramsay’s direction and Phoenix’s performance work in perfect tandem is the ambiguity within them. They each take great care in limiting exactly what the audience can see within Joe. We know the broad characteristics of his character, and those are enough to inspire intrigue over what exactly is burdening him. This is an amazing achievement given how closely the film analyses him at other points. Occasionally the camera seems to take on an entirely subjective view of the world, as if we are seeing it from Joe’s point of view. Inhabiting his mind but never really understanding what lies within.

This elusive theme can be found within other technical aspects of the movie as well. Johnny Greenwood’s score is haunting in its pulsating rhythm, matching the ominous atmosphere of the movie’s visual language perfectly.  The sound design is also nerve wrenchingly intricate, drawing upon pain staking silences as well as sickeningly effective bursts of action. None of these aspects are designed to manipulate the viewer though. They don’t tell the audience to feel a certain way towards the protagonist. Instead we just sit and watch as this intricate portrait unfolds before our eyes.

There’s also a distinct level of restraint in terms of how Ramsay showcases the violence of her plot. We see violence at a distance, through a clinical lens that ultimately makes it seem even more frightening. The way the film normalises these brutal acts speak volumes as to how its protagonist sees the world around him. How he numbs himself to the pain of others whilst trying to serve some justification for the violence he enacts unto them. Whether it’s by way of guilt, desperation of a need for self-destruction, any sense of justice is merely a by-product of Joe’s actions rather than a motive.

But amid all of this crushing depression and biting tension, you will find a small glimmer of hope and beauty within Ramsay’s film. She seeks to present a broader view of the human experience in all of her films and ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is no different. There are moments of transcendent surrealism throughout the film that serve to make the overall journey through this damaged soul all the more affecting. Moments of innocence, redemption and hope are never lost to the film, even if they pass by its main character.

Nerve shredding tense and fascinatingly complex, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is a phenomenal entry to Lynne Ramsay’s body of work.

Result: 9/10  

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

A Quiet Place

"Who are we if we can't protect them?"

I always get the sense that horror movies are the best genre from which to make a directorial debut. Obviously it depends upon what each specific director wants, but it seems that horror leaves room to make a particularly strong showcase of a filmmaker’s talent. To lure an audience in and effectively manipulate them through directorial prowess, it takes a particular skill that has been proven to translate well into future projects. It also seems to leave more room for experimentation with the form and social commentary, which is even better if you want to make a mark.

In the year 2020, most of Earth's human population has been wiped out by a race of sightless, extra-terrestrial creatures with incredible hearing ability. In this wasteland, Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (John Krasinski) and their children must navigate their lives in complete silence out of fear of being the elusive creature’s next victim, where every day is a fight for survival.

There are certain elements of ‘A Quiet Place’ that are so brilliantly constructed that I feel like they should be studied. Personally I found the most striking aspect of the film to be how it continually masters the art of short form tension, where each scene or set piece is assembled through the enticing sense of curiosity that soon turns into unparalleled fear and dread. The tension is palpable and always engaging, to a point where I was honestly glad the film after 90 minutes because any longer would likely be too exhausting.

The film has less of a story and more a series of incidents relating to how the family at the heart of the narrative navigates this dystopian land. It seems as though this method would feel repetitive or aimless, but the film’s structure does a marvellous job at keeping these set pieces focussed and purposeful. It’s also a brilliant display of escalation within storytelling. Krasinski opens the film safe in the assurance that audiences will be more intrigued than frightened, so he teases the information and grounds the scale of each horror set piece. But as the viewer is gradually immersed into the world and what its stakes are the direction broadens the scope of what exactly is taking place.

The cast are incredibly impressive all round, with Blunt and Kransinski capably hitting the balance between desperation and determination as they struggle to protect their children. To convey as much emotion as they do with such limited dialogue is no small feat, but there was no point at which I questioned Evelyn and Lee’s intent or motivation. Despite the stigma for child actors in horror films Millicent Simmonds also gives a stunning performance. She has a different balancing act to perform than that of her older co stars. In Simmonds case she manages to express a sense of familiarity with the premise of the movie, reflecting how the character has lived with this environment for most of if not her whole life, but also retain that shred of innocence that makes the danger she is in so evocative.

But often it’s the sound design that is just as expressive as the actors of the movie. The movie’s sound has to function on both an atmospheric and visceral level, to further an immersion into the world in which the story takes place while also conveying the individual actions that take place within that world. Silence is used so meticulously and deliberately that any noise becomes jarring to an uncomfortable extent. On numerous occasions found myself growing nervous through nothing more than the lingering silence of the movie, stuck in a state of perpetual anticipation.

However, the way sound is used to convey fear within ‘A Quiet Place’ isn’t always so faultless. It does occasionally succumb to the annoying trait many horror movies have in which a jump scare has to be marked by some cheap and overly manipulative sound effect. It’s especially frustrating here given how masterfully the tension was derived from the build up to certain scares, only to then spoil them slightly. Luckily there are a good number of instances where this doesn’t happen and the scene is all the better for it.

Another issue comes from the flaws within the film’s internal logic. Just certain plot contrivances that, while certainly not detrimental, leave a little to be desired in terms of story construction. Perhaps that is another benefit of the film only coming in with a 90 minute runtime. It doesn’t leave the viewer with a lot of time to question the functionality of the narrative and why certain actions don’t have the weight and consequence of others. I’d refer to them more as plot contrivances rather than plot holes since there is likely some explanation of sorts, it’s just that the movie did a poor job conveying that explanation.

‘A Quiet Place’ is a chillingly strong debut and that effectively delivers scare after scare.

Result: 7/10

Monday, 9 April 2018

Isle of Dogs

"A long rickety causeway over a noxious sludge marsh leading to a radioactive land filled with toxic chemical garbage. That's our destination."

It’s no secret to any of my friends (yes I can sense your surprise, I have friends) that I adore Wes Anderson and his work. I admit it can be self-indulgent and perhaps a little pretentious at times but his movies are so exquisitely crafted, endearingly charming and feature such a quirky sense of humour that I can’t help but fall in love with all of them. His return to stop motion animation is certainly something to get excited about.

By executive decree, all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a vast garbage-dump called Trash Island. This prompts 12-year-old Atari to set off alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop and flies across the river in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots. There, with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends, he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire Prefecture.

It would come as little surprise to me if I discovered that Wes Anderson sees the world in stop motion, because he seems so inherently comfortable with the form. His films are all meticulously framed and eloquently composed so as to create picturesque tableaus. When combined with the beautifully constructed models and set design within ‘Isle of Dogs’ every solitary shot of the film is magnificent to behold. I’m not sure what impresses me more, the scope or the detail. Anderson brings us expansive and varied landscapes with the same care as he brings the most intimate of details.

Literally everything has a tactile dexterity to it, which somehow works to keep the viewer grounded in the film’s reality whilst also being acutely aware of its metanarrative. An example is how dryly humorous it is to see cotton wool used as a signifier of scuffles and fights, but I never questioned its placement or saw it as something that took me out of the story. There’s also such acute attention to the way Anderson’s titular dogs move and interact. It’s obvious that a great deal of care was put into animating the four legged characters and bestow each of them with their own distinct physicality.

Another strange contradiction within the films craftsmanship is how it defies to laws of animation whilst also playing to them. Dramatic angles, harsh lighting cues and dynamic camera moves all come into play, serving a great stylistic function in any given moment of the story. Obviously if you know even the slightest thing about stop motion animation you’ll know how excruciatingly difficult it is. So to bring these additional aspects into the process as well is even more commendable.

But despite these eccentric flourishes these is unquestionably a great deal of severity to ‘Isle of Dogs’. There’s a good deal of violence that feels sudden and harsh due to its stark contrast with the quirky charm that permeates much of the film. The dramatic moments have a similar effect, as the film suddenly presents a bleaker picture that is certainly effective. Luckily Anderson has such tight control of the tone of his film that these shifts never feel jarring or uncomfortable. They feel like natural developments in the narrative that serve to give it a richer depth.

That narrative happens to be somewhat simplistic in structure, but the eccentric details that Anderson peppers throughout mean that it is never unengaging. If anything I think the straight forward plot ultimately complements the film as a whole since it gives Anderson more time to provide nuances to his characters and allow them to develop. I spoke earlier of their distinct physicality but they share that uniqueness in their entire personas as well. Even amid this epic ensemble I find myself remembering brilliant details about almost every character.

I think it also helps that the film has such a talented voice cast to breathe life into each of these characters. Of the gigantic cast (all of whom are stellar) there are some noticeable highlights. Bryan Cranston conveys such a brilliant sense of world weariness in how he voices the character of Chief. Great Gerwig brings a lovable sense of determination to her role, while Bill Murray and Ed Norton ooze energy with every spoken word. Tilda Swinton is also great but that should come as no surprise, nor should the way Jeff Goldblum’s inclusion makes everything infinitely better (it’s a proven fact, look it up).

As much as I adore ‘Isle of Dogs’ there are certain flaws to it. Obviously if you are looking for naturalistic cinema then this isn’t the movie for you, and even as someone who is accustomed to Anderson’s style I have to admit I found its eccentricity to be a little alienating at times. The film is also slightly unfocussed in terms of establishing who the main characters are and what the main themes of the story are. It’s not until the halfway point that the film actually starts to develop its conceits and characters since the first half is so devoted to establishing the world in which the story takes place. But at the end of the day it should come as no surprise that the film is magnificent overall.

Eccentric and playful in all the right ways, whilst also including a dramatic heart, ‘Isle of Dogs’ is an exquisitely animated and meticulously crafted delight.  

Result: 8/10

Ready Player One

"A hidden key, a leap not taken, retrace your steps, escape your past, and the hidden key will be yours at last."

I don’t think it’s any secret that the central conceit of Ernest Cline’s ‘Ready Player One’ is pure wish fulfilment. Obviously that is not to say that a ready cannot derive more meaning from it, but I think it seems fairly obvious that Cline set out to incorporate the fantasies of his, and an entire generation, or pop culture fans into an easily accessible story. It’s that inherent aspect that could a movie adaptation intriguing or insufferable depending upon how it’s handled.

In the year 2045, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is among the many who escape their harsh reality in the OASIS, an immersive virtual world where you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone-the only limits are your own imagination. OASIS creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left his immense fortune and control of the Oasis to the winner of a contest designed to find a worthy heir. Soon Wade is hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.

I feel that if anyone can instil more meaning into a book that, if I’m being brutally honest, I found somewhat empty and indulgent, it’s Steven Spielberg. In some regards the seasoned director does wring a good deal more substance out of the source material but in others the film still falls short. Spielberg does a good job at stripping away many of the pop culture references in favour of zeroing in on the driving force of the narrative and characters. The result is an adaptation that actually builds upon the themes of its story. Though it still leaves something to be desired there’s no mistaking Spielberg’s particular craftsmanship in his handling of the story.

It’s also the most Spielbergian (that’s a word right?) movie the director has made since ‘Minority Report’. There’s a brilliant kinetic energy that permeates every action sequence to make them utterly electrifying. Spielberg also showcases once more that he has a better understanding of a scene’s geography and its importance more than almost anyone else. Every exciting set piece is concise and clear without losing any of its visceral thrill. His favouring of long, smooth takes over unnecessary fast edits gives makes the action flow seamlessly as well.

Another remarkable aspect is how the world of the OASIS is rendered. Though I wouldn’t call the special effects realistic necessarily, they do have a visual consistency that endows a certain believability to the world. The way in which the camera navigates the world never fails to evoke a sense of awe as it unfolds in front of the audience. It paints an astonishingly cinematic portrait that possesses a terrific depth of field thanks to the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. The scope allows Spielberg to include many of the pop culture references in the background. But at the same time the frame rarely feels cluttered or overly dense.

The characters that inhabit that world are all brought to life superbly by the talented cast. Ben Mendelson makes for a wonderfully maniacal villain while Mark Rylance serves as the Willy Wonka of the OASIS which he conveys with a sense of wonder and indelible charm. Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke make for compelling protagonists as well. Though if I may take this time to make a very minor nitpick (more with the industry as a whole than this movie), can movies stop trying to objectively attractive people out to be hideous? Olivia Cooke’s character has a barely noticeable birthmark on her face, which the film treats as if that makes her a freak of nature when by all intents and purposes she is still ridiculously beautiful. I’m just saying.

Another, significantly larger issue, comes from the development and depth that is bestowed to each of these characters. Though they are established well, ‘Ready Player One’ never really digs into its characters or what motivates them. Normally that might not be a significant issue but in a film that is literally constructed around the concept of people redefining their identities it surely wouldn’t hurt to uncover at least a bit about what exactly led those people to adopt their specific identities. Furthermore, the characters don’t develop as much as they do fill an obligation to the script. Though they undergo changes they seem to come about suddenly and when it’s convenient for the narrative rather than a more substantial way of conveying their progression.

I wouldn’t say the lack of depth is detrimental to ‘Ready Player One’ but it’s the reason it ultimately ends up being a middle tier Spielberg entry. There’s enough energy and pulpy joy to it, with the plot being fast paced and highly enjoyable. But it lacks that little extra something that would elevate it to stand alongside Spielberg’s stronger catalogue. That being said, middle tier Spielberg is still stronger than the work of most other filmmakers so you could do significantly worse when it comes to high concept blockbusters.

Highly entertaining and supremely energetic, ‘Ready Player One’ is a movie elevated by Spielberg’s deft touch, even if could stand to be elevated a little further.

Result: 7/10    

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Recapping the MCU - Captain America: The First Avenger

I’m always slightly conflicted over how to judge ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’. On the one hand there are prevalent flaws within the structure of the story and its pacing that prevents me from loving it. But on the other hand it has such an indelible charm to it that I can’t help but have a soft spot for it in the MCU catalogue. It has its fair share of unremarkable moments but at the same time it has many outstanding elements that you can’t help but be endeared to.

A lot of that charm is down to the loving direction of Joe Johnston, whose 1991 film ‘The Rocketeer’ (which has been labelled an underrated gem so often that I don’t even think it qualifies as being underrated anymore) worked as a similar love letter to the Golden Age of comics. Johnston takes the same approach with ‘The First Avenger’ as his direction seems to bestow such a nostalgic feel to the narrative without seeming like an empty substitute. Johnston goes out of his way to establish a consistent tone and visual style to the film through his affinity for smaller details. The camera loves to swerve through the nuanced aspects of this world and pay close attention to what makes them unique.

The same can be said for the film’s way of introducing characters. Johnston creates such strong characterisations through such simple means that it’s no surprise that the events which motivate Steve Rogers in this film have continued to have an effect for the entire franchise. You can tell from the way Rogers is framed that Johnston cares a great deal about retaining those key characteristics that define Captain America. From the admittedly not so subtle foreshadowing of Cap using his shield to the simplistic but strong attitude he takes to navigating his training.

If anything I think it’s this love for establishing Cap and his identity that ultimately harms the movie slightly. ‘The First Avenger’ has a first act that can’t help but overstay its welcome a little. There’s a great deal of build-up and time spent establishing the principle characters, but it takes its time a point where the unfolding narrative afterwards feels somewhat rushed. Even Johnston’s direction seems to take a downward turn as his methods of conveying action and exposition descend into a repetitive and generic style.

Luckily though the strength of that first act also carries over in that the characters are so well established that watching them navigate this admittedly predictable narrative is immensely enjoyable. To see Steve Rogers using all of his founded characteristics shining through in his heroic actions has a great catharsis to it. Chris Evans completely embodies everything you would want from a big screen portrayal of Captain America. Confident without arrogance, sincerity without cheese, and charm without contrivances. It’s just impossible not to root for Steve Rogers and be endeared to his ongoing journey.

Upon revisiting the movie I was also greatly surprised by some aspects, namely the supporting cast and the pathos throughout. Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell in particular Sebastian Stan all make for brilliant allies to the titular hero whilst also being distinct counterparts in their own right. Every one of them has an endearing relationship with Cap that changes over the course of the movie to great results. In any other Marvel movie Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Red Skull would be ludicrously over the top but in this context it just seems to work. It’s not complex in the slightest but it’s highly entertaining.

Then there’s the biggest surprise in retrospect, how the film handles its humour. I think the MCU does have an issue with balancing their humour and pathos as they sometimes undercut the latter with the former. But all of the humour in ‘The First Avenger’ feels earned, nuanced and brilliantly character driven. Once again it goes back to the core of what makes this film special, an affinity for the small details and subtle moments that just bestow an undeniable charm to ‘The First Avenger’.

Despite some of its broader narrative issues, ‘The First Avenger’ is an endearing and endlessly entertaining introduction to one of Marvel’s most timeless heroes.

Result: 7/10

Recapping the MCU - Thor

I feel like every time I watch ‘Thor’ I walk away with a different opinion of it. At times I walk away with the impression that it might actually be an under appreciated entry to the MCU that deserves more critical praise than it receives. But then on other instances I kind of understand why Marvel have gone for a slight course correction with the character. On this instance I find myself gravitating towards the latter option.

That being said I think there are many unique and interesting qualities to ‘Thor’, most of them brought about by director Keneth Branagh whose specific additions to the movie are intriguing to say the least. In fact like much of the film there are aspects of it which work brilliantly and aspects that are baffling inclusions. Branagh’s world building is excellent. He frames Asgard in such a way to endow it with real mythic weight and stature. Though he doesn’t quite flesh out the world to any great degree (a task that should have befallen the sequel, but we’ll cross that bridge later) you understand enough about their basic atmosphere and system that you become engrossed in the eventual fate of the world.

But where Branagh’s direction exceeds on an establishing front, it somewhat fails on a more momentary basis. The elephant in the room would be the overuse of Dutch angles which are so utterly unmotivated that they are more baffling than noticeable. I’d be lying if they said they greatly disrupted my viewing experience of ‘Thor’ but it certainly makes the viewer raise some questions over why the camera is constantly on a tile. Even in moments of humour or levity I still find that specific angle creeping its way back into the story.

I’ve always maintained that if you are able to notice something this kind of problem on a regular basis, it speaks to some degree for how engaging the story is as well. So that leads me into another issue with ‘Thor’, namely that its narrative is quite simplistic to say the least. Thor’s central arc is painstakingly predictable from the outset and there really isn’t any variation in how that development is presented. If anything it comes across as being rushed and a little contrived, but ultimately it is still believable and affecting to a certain degree.

I’d say the cast follow a similar pattern in that certain aspects are terrific and others are Cat Dennings. I feel a little bad saying that as I usually don’t like to single out individuals, but both Dennings’ performance and the character the script provides her with are drastically out of tonal synch with the rest of the movie. Natalie Portman also feels slightly flat as Jane Foster. She shares decent chemistry with her on screen romance but just doesn’t seem to flourish as an individual character. Whether that’s the fault of the script or Portman not bringing enough energy to the role, or both, it’s hardly a huge detriment to the film. It’s just one of the aspects that makes the narrative feel somewhat contrived when I’m asked to invest so heavily in this relationship even the narrative seems to be uninterested in.

But outside of that the titular character is brought to life brilliantly by Chris Hemsworth. For starters there is no denying that Hemsworth completely and utterly embodies the role of a literal god on a physical level. The way he struts around each scene, exuding charisma and carrying himself with such grandiose is immensely entertaining to watch when the character is both in and out of his comfort zone. He’s also perfectly countered by Tom Hiddelstone as Loki whose performance is the complete parallel. Loki also exudes charisma but it’s of a much more villainous nature that does wonders for his sense of menace. Hiddelstone’s performance single handedly works to elevate the narrative since his portrayal of Loki feels like a genuinely prevalent threat that needs to be dealt with.

‘Thor’ is a mixed bag in every regard, but it still contains enough unique elements to be interesting at times as well as frustrating at others.

Result: 5/10