Sunday, 6 November 2016

Forget Everything You Think You Know: "Doctor Strange"

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Mild Spoilers Below

Doctor Strange represents an important step forward for Marvel Studios. With a plethora of visual imagination and a distinct feel which separates it from its brethren in the Marvel Cinematic Universe- even though it still has several Marvel movie elements that arise- the film is honestly one of the favourite films from the MCU thus far. The story itself is very much the "Origin Story"- Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) goes through personal trauma, learns his powers, defeats the villain, and everything is firmly set up both for sequels and for Strange to appear in other MCU films. But while the story is generic, the film doesn't feel overtly stale. This comes from the aforementioned visual creativity as well as a compact running time and a dedicated lead performance from Cumberbatch and his fellow cast-members. 

Stephen Strange is a renowned and brilliant neurosurgeon who after a car accident is unable to continue his practice due to his hands being damaged. Strange learns of a former paraplegic named Jonathon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who is now walking. Hoping that whatever healed Pangborn can give him hands back, he confronts Pangborn, who tells Strange of a place called Karmar-Taj. There Strange meets Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who takes him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She introduces Strange him to the world of magic, alternate worlds and astral planing. While at first reluctant to take in Strange as a pupil, she finally agrees. Strange eventually learns of the larger conflict at place between the Ancient One's former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who has stolen pages from a book in the Karmar-Taj library and wants to summon the demon Dormammu and gain eternal life.

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The film's director Scott Derrickson is someone whose work I've admired in the past. I think Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose are underrated gems of the horror genre and Derrickson's background in this genre and his talent for crafting unsettling imagery benefits the film when it enters psychedelic mode. When the Ancient One first sends Strange on a trip through the multiverse there's some creepy stuff that right's out a nightmare. What I like about the film is it acknowledges how scary magic and the mystic arts can be. Strange is warned that he plays around with time manipulation he can be stuck- Groundhog Day style- in the same moment forever or even wipe himself out of existence. Cinematographer Ben Davis provides a more atmospheric and darker look than we're used to in the MCU. 

Cumberbatch isn't a stranger to playing hyper-intelligent and arrogant men who are very good at what they do- though Strange is more recognisably human than his version of Sherlock Holmes. The early parts of the film where we're introduced to Strange, witness his accident and it's aftermath feel refreshingly feel less like a superhero film than a drama. When Strange first sees his damaged hands it has genuine dramatic weight and we can understand his desperation at wanting to repair himself- though its underscored by his arrogance. He can't stand losing the fame and glory his talent and work brought him. 

Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange's colleague and former lover, is sadly underused but McAdams is such a naturally appealing and charismatic actress that she imbues Christine with some personality that's absent on the page. Michael Stuhlbarg, a fine actor, is also wasted as another fellow doctor, Nicodemus West.  

Mikkelsen is one of the best when it comes to playing suavely sinister bad guys and he makes Kaecilus one of the better MCU villains. I like that his motivation isn't world domination but wanting to reunite with his deceased wife and son. There's not much of a hero-villain relationship between Kaecilius and Strange- instead Kaecilius has a more intriguing relationship with the Ancient One.

Ejiofor, an elegant yet forceful actor, is arguably playing the most important character next to Strange. I would've liked a few more moments just to make his decision at the end of the film a little more weighty. Benedict Wong is amusing as the humourless Wong. Most of the humour in the film comes from his interactions with Strange, which is where the typical Marvel humour seeps in. Once the humour starts it does clash with the more serious first act. 

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There's been much controversy surrounding Swinton's casting as the traditionally Tibetan Ancient One. Whitewashing is still a significant issue in Hollywood and needs to be rectified. With that being said, Swinton's performance is very good. She's such an offbeat and unique presence as an actress that she makes the Ancient One feel believably mystic. She also has the most emotional scene in the movie; it takes place between her and Strange and emphasises her humanity and how it exists alongside her incredible powers.

For those that felt Inception didn't do enough visually regarding its dream-scapes, Doctor Strange provides a plenty of eye-candy. I've become somewhat numb to blockbuster action but this is the rare film of its kind where the action is involving and exciting. Gravity is defied, geography is twisted and people fight on the astral plane; even the whole end of the world climax gets a fresh coat of paint and I love how the villain is defeated through wit rather than brawn.

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While I like that the film is relatively short I still would've liked more of certain characters. I also feel it has the Man of Steel problem of putting most of the action in the back-half. Doctor Strange feels more in line with the Phase 1 films of the MCU where Marvel really felt like they were playing around with different genres within the same universe. The film is also very standalone- even though it name drops the Avengers, Infinity Stones and someone drops by in the mid-credits. It's good we can get more standalone adventures to balance out the more continuity heavy films like Civil War. Doctor Strange, while working as a self-contained story- also introduces plenty of cool ideas and concepts in to the larger MCU. And I am looking forward to seeing Strange interact with the other Marvel characters. As cynical as I can be about the superhero genre, having these characters exist and interact together is a wonderful thing. To paraphrase the poster for Doctor Strange: The possibilities are endless.  

Friday, 2 September 2016

"Men are still good:" An essay on "Man of Steel" and "Batman v. Superman"

Warning: Spoilers for both films will follow

I don't think it's too hyperbolic to say that Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice are arguably the most controversial and divisive superhero films ever made. They've received both intense hate and love, which isn't surprising. From tone to characterisation, these are not the films many people want. For many, these films are too dark, too violent ("Batman and Superman shouldn't kill"), and don't have enough levity. For me, MoS and BvS are two of the boldest examples of modern blockbuster film-making- significantly flawed but still potent and filled with numerous moments of visual and emotional beauty. This essay will focus on MoS and BvS' thematic concerns rather than attempt to outright review the films. 

On an important side-note, with the newly released Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice- Ultimate Edition on Blu-ray, (which contains 30 more minutes of footage), we're able to see Zack Snyder's original vision for his much maligned film. The Ultimate Edition is fuller and more cohesive. It also feels like the three hour epic as which it was originally conceived.The film's reputation has gained some much needed positivity due to the Ultimate Edition, which I think is helpful as we move closer to next year's Justice League. 

Beginning with MoS, the film shares structural similarities to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (David S. Goyer wrote both films, Nolan shares a story credit and is a producer on MoS). Like Batman Begins, MoS has a fractured narrative. As the ship carrying baby Kal (Superman's Kryptonian name) is about to crash on earth, we cut to adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working as a fisherman. It's an elegant way to start at the beginning  of the Superman story (Krypton's destruction) while not wasting time getting to Clark as an adult. We then witness, via flashback, Clark's childhood, where he learns about and struggles with his super-human powers. In the present an adult Clark finally discovers where he came from and of his real purpose on Earth.

By employing a flashback structure, MoS distances and diversifies itself from Richard Donner's original classic with Christopher Reeve, which told its story linearly. And by positioning the scenes of Clark's childhood and young adulthood as flashbacks, it makes the experience of the film more intimate; Clark reflects on the moments of his life that defined him, which inform the moments in the present. The scenes of MoS where Clark is discovering where he came from- are its strongest. They feel less like a traditional superhero film than an independent film about someone who has super powers. When General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his fellow Kryptonians come to earth, the film becomes an alien invasion sci-fi film that happens to have Superman in it.

Both MoS and BvS also approach the concept and character of Superman from a very specific angle, which is, how would people react if Superman actually existed in our world. Some would worship him as a saviour, some would fear him or even hate him, and some wouldn't know how to feel. The film-makers approached MoS as a first-contact story- our first encounter with alien life. By being a story about Earth's first encounter with alien life, MoS isn't just a story about Superman, it's a story about the whole being at the precipice of a new chapter in history. The attempted terra-forming and subsequent battle of Metropolis are ground-zero for everything going forward in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe). We are shown a modern and realistic world that witnesses the birth of a modern mythology. The events of the film will be spoken about for generations to come. The arrival of Superman has irrevocably changed the course of world history.

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At the end of MoS, Superman is forced to kill  Zod the most controversial moment in either film. I don't want to get in to whether Superman should or shouldn't kill. In the context of the film I feel killing Zod is a sacrifice Superman has to make for humanity. He has to kill the last of his race so that the Earth can survive. This makes him the last living Kryptonian on the planet. By showing he is able to sacrifice Krypton for Earth he becomes the representation of Krypton to Earth- the bridge between Krypton and Earth of which his birth father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) spoke.

Moving on to BvS, in that film's news montage, Vikram Gandhi (playing himself) person says the arrival of Superman is a "paradigm shift," and that we can't presume to make Superman abide by our rules- it just won't work. While we Gandhi states people have to start to thinking beyond politics. But as Andrew Sullivan (also playing himself) says, whatever Superman does can be construed as a political act. Sullivan's statement appears to me to be a comment on the image of Superman as an all-American hero. In the modern era, Superman has to represent everyone and care about the state of the whole world- but again, as grand a figure as he is, he can't really escape the political implications and ramifications of his actions. "Must there be a Superman?" Charlie Rose asks Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Her blunt answer: "There is." Superman is here, regardless of whether people want him or not; he is part of their existence. This one line conveys how it would feel to know- and have to accept- someone like Superman existing in our world. 

And maybe people do need a Superman. All super-heroes inspire us to be better and Superman represents this idea of inspiration better than all the others. While some may find Superman outdated, I think he remains relevant in our current time. There is so much hatred and cynicism that poisons the world. that what Superman stands for is still important: Hope. The hope that we can be better as a people if led the way, if we come together instead of continuing to push each other away.

One criticism of both MoS and BvS is they don't have the optimistic and light-hearted tone that we'd expect from a Superman film. And that's true- but despite being quite serious dark in many places, I believe there is an optimistic undercurrent to both films. In MoS, Superman gaining Colonel Nathan Hardy's (Christopher Meloni) trust and respect when he saves Hardy from Kryptonian Faora (Antje Traue) during the fight in Smallville shows Hardy's- and mankind in general- ability to look beyond his prejudice and see Superman as a hero and ally rather than just an alien. And during the film's climax, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) stay with Jenny (Rebecca Buller) as Metropolis is crumbling around them, displaying the compassion that even the most hardened man is capable of showing.   

Most importantly, by the end of BvS Superman has restored Bruce Wayne's (Ben Affleck) faith in humankind. In the film's closing scenes Bruce tells Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), "Men are still good. We fight. We kill. We betray one another. But we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to." Bruce has spent most of the film hating and wanting to kill Superman- but in a bitter-sweet irony, Superman's sacrifice and death in the fight against Doomsday has shown Bruce a person's ability to be selfless and good. Superman still struggles with being a symbol of hope throughout BvS. People still question his motivations- politically and morally- throughout the film. Through his death at the film's end, I feel he becomes that symbol. His death rises him above politics and fear, and his absence allows humanity to reflect on his time on Earth and how they'll move forward. Superman's sacrifice ties both he and Bruce's arcs nicely together. 

Speaking of Bruce Wayne, I think along with Batman BeginsBvS features the best exploration of Bruce/Batman in live-action. The film begins with the funeral of Bruce's parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne- which bookends with Superman's funeral at the end. Just as MoS began with the cries of baby Kal El- the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries- BvS begins with the "birth" of Batman. In a dream sequence where he's at his parents' funeral Bruce falls down a hole and is swarmed by bats who- in one of the film's most striking images- bring him back up to the surface- to a "beautiful lie," as Bruce tells us in voice-over.

We then witness the Battle of Metropolis from Bruce's perspective. This first scene with the older Bruce establishes his motivations for wanting to destroy Superman. He blames Superman the destruction of Metropolis and the loss of the people in of his buildings. He comforts a girl who lost her mother in the destruction. Part of what drives Bruce in his mission as Batman is the need to prevent his tragedy happening to another child. The orphaned girl further fuels Bruce's rage.

He also fears what would happen if Superman decides to turn against mankind. This is highlighted by the "Knightmare" sequence in which Bruce sees a possible future where Superman is a tyrant (reminiscent of the Injustice video game and the subsequent comic book series it inspired). This sequence is a miniature movie in itself. It both reflects and reinforces Bruce's fears of Superman's unlimited capabilities. 

Just before the fight between Batman and Superman, Bruce tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that killing Superman will be his legacy. Bruce feels that criminals are like weeds but eliminating Superman will secure the survival of the world. This is an point-of-view from the character I don't think has ever been explored in the comics- Bruce thinking about a legacy outside his war on crime. Maybe it wouldn't work in the comics medium but in a film it makes sense. This Bruce has aged in real time- 20 years in Gotham as the Batman. This exchange between Bruce and Alfred also conveys that Bruce has been driven over the edge by Superman's presence in the world, on top everything else he's experienced through his. He's willing to fight a super-human being so he can secure a legacy beyond that of beating up criminals, one that's befitting of the Wayne name- "They were hunters," Bruce says of his ancestors.

Bruce also mentions he's older than his father ever was. Like other superheroes that followed them, Superman and Batman's beginnings are based in the loss of parents. MoS is very much a film about fathers, as Superman has two- his aforementioned Kryptonian father Jor and his adopted father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Jonathan is protective of his son, knowing he's meant for something greater but afraid what will happen when he reveals himself to the world.

If MoS was largely about fathers, then BvS is about mothers. The "Martha" scene has been the subject of much ridicule. People read the scene as Batman becoming Superman's ally just because their mothers share the same name. But I think it goes deeper than that. Batman realizes he's been manipulated by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). He also finally sees Superman as someone with genuine humanity- he has a mother who he's trying to save. Batman has an epiphany, which brings him back from the edge.

Now, about Lex Luthor. I feel BvS' Lex is one of the more unusual villains in recent comic-book movie history. Eisenberg's interpretation is the most eccentric Lex we've seen on screen thus far. His motivations have nothing to do with taking over the world or real estate. All the intricate plot mechanics- which were muddled in the theatrical version of BvS- are in service of Lex's anger from a childhood trauma that never healed. Lex tells Superman that no God saved him when his father physically abused him. To Lex, Superman represents the God who was never there when he needed him. Lex directs all his hatred toward Superman and wishes to prove that the perfect God figure isn't perfect- when pushed, he'll kill someone to save his mother. Though, ironically, Lex's plan is self-destructive, since kidnapping Martha Kent (Diane Lane) is what brings Batman over to Superman's side.

Despite its title, BvS isn't really about Batman and Superman fighting. Yes, it's pivotal sequence in the film and the plot threads of the film lead to it- but BvS is more about bringing these heroes together. What's more satisfying than seeing these two titans duke it out onscreen is seeing them reconcile- to witness Batman seeing Superman for who he really is. "I failed him in life. I will not fail him," says Bruce at the end. This line solidifies Bruce's arc in the film; and it says a great deal about how our relationship with someone can drastically change. Bruce began hating Superman but now he'll make certain his sacrifice isn't in vain. Superman's death is the basis for gathering the Justice League, a team that will honour his memory. And when Superman returns, he will lead this team. I don't find the tease of Superman's return in the film's closing shot cheap. The film slows down in it's final scenes, allowing the audience to feel weight of his loss and how it affects the world.

I think what has made Batman and Superman such inspiring figures for readers throughout the years is that they are characters who have suffer tragedies but use those tragedies as the foundation to do good in the world. Superman will never be able to return to Krypton but he can save Earth from Krypton's fate. Batman fights criminals so another child doesn't have to lose his/her parents. They may go about things differently but Batman and Superman can find common ground, which itself is a hopeful sentiment. If Batman and Superman can get along, maybe we all can.

Monday, 1 August 2016

I remember everything: "Jason Bourne"

Warning: Significant Spoilers for Jason Bourne and The Bourne Supremacy follow

It's funny what you remember and what you don't. I remember seeing The Bourne Identity back in 2002- and during the first big fight scene between Jason Bourne and an assassin, my mother began singing the ''Secret Agent Man'' theme from the 60s TV series Danger Man. I don't know why I still remember that, but I just do. And it can't help but fuel the nostalgia for the Bourne series. I was 13 when the first film came out. I was still in junior high. And by the time The Bourne Ultimatum came out in 2007, I had just finished high school and was about to enter university in the fall. I know you're probably wondering why I'm getting so personal. Personally I feel it's hard to separate certain films for franchises from the periods of my life in which they came out. And it being nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum and with a new Bourne film being released- simply titled Jason Bourne- I've been watching Jason Bourne movies for more than half my life.

The Bourne Identity- directed by Doug Liman- was filmed before the events of 9/11 and released less than a year after the tragedy. Back in 2002- and more so now-it was a pretty old-fashioned action film, less concerned with bombastic action set-pieces and more on smaller scaled encounters. It even had a pretty tidy happy ending for the most part. When Paul Greengrass took over the franchise with The Bourne Supremacy and the subsequent The Bourne Ultimatum, he took what Liman established and brought a raw and contemporary edge to the franchise. The franchise became a little more darker and morally ambiguous, no- doubt influenced by the 9/11 era that the original film existed outside at its time of filming.

Jason Bourne- again directed by Greengrass- begins with former government agent Jason Bourne- real name David Webb (Matt Damon)- living off the grid and taking part in illegal fighting rings. He's regained his memory yet is still unable to find any kind of real peace. When Damon first played Bourne back in 2002, he was in many ways still the fresh-faced kid from Good Will Hunting and was an unusual choice for an action film role. Now at 45, Damon has played the character for a significant portion of his career and the character has aged with Damon- and vice-versa. Bourne doesn't speak much in the film but Damon conveys the weight of Bourne's emotional and physical journey throughout the series in his body language and face.

Now in a post-Snowden world, Jason Bourne has a strong focus on the theme cyber-hacking. In the beginning of the film. Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), former C.I.A operative and current ally of Bourne, hacks in to the C.I.A's mainframe so she can expose the agency's black ops program. She discovers information on Bourne's father Richard Webb and Bourne's recruitment in to the Treadstone program. Nicky finds Jason and informs him of what she's been working on. He and Nicky escape from a team sent after them but Nicky is killed by an assassin known as the Asset (Vincent Cassel). 

Nicky's death-which recall's the death of Bourne's former lover Marie's (Franka Potente) in the first act of The Bourne Supremacy- is surprisingly poignant. Bourne is a character- like other action heroes- marked by tragedy. Nicky was one of the last people he had any real connection to and now she's gone. Bourne a survivor in the purest sense of the word. He outlives both his enemies and his loved ones. What's most impressive about the franchise is despite Bourne miraculously surviving events that would have killed someone in reality, he never feels too ridiculous or super-human. Greengrass always makes you feel the weight of every collision, punch and- in one instant- concrete landing. As "cool" and exciting as the action is in the franchise, there's a real sense of pain to it. When Bourne walks away from a fight, he may be the "winner" but I think Bourne regrets every life he's taken or person he's hurt. 

As in all the Bourne films, while the movie is ostensibly about him, there's also a great deal of focus on the government officials who are after Bourne. While Joan Allen's Pamela Landy unfortunately doesn't return or is even mentioned, we are introduced to two pivotal new characters- C.I.A director Rober Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, an actor who fits perfectly in to this series) and Cyber-ops division head Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), who persuades Dewey to let her attempt to bring in Bourne from the cold, so to speak.    
Vikander- a recent Oscar winner for The Danish Girl- is one of the most naturalistic young actors working today. While the role feels its written for someone older, Vikander brings a maturity- coupled with a youthful ambition- to the role of Lee. Without giving away the ending, Lee feels like she's going to be a pivotal character moving forward in the franchise. Lee isn't Pamela Landy 2.0- unlike Landy, she's not as trustworthy and in a reversal of the Bourne/Landy dynamic, Bourne is the older one in this pair.

Jason Bourne reveals the final emotional piece of the puzzle, revealing why Bourne volunteered for the Treadstone in the first place. There's also the story thread involving Aaran Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) as the CEO of a social media enterprise called Deep Dream. It was secretly funded by Dewey, who wants to use it as a means of mass surveillance. This plot feels like it's supposed to be the larger thematic arc running through the film but the themes of hacking and surveillance needed a little delving in to. In some ways Jason Bourne feels only like half a film; and Bourne's emotional storyline doesn't have much to do with him protecting peoples' privacy. But I guess that's the point; Bourne's never been out to save the world. It's not that he doesn't care about people; it's just that all he can really do in this world is survive. 

Both Bourne and the Asset's motivations- when his connection to Bourne is revealed- concern revenge against each other- but the film isn't merely a revenge story for Bourne. Revenge is just another way for Bourne to justify some kind of existence. The tragedy of Jason Bourne and Jason Bourne is he's no better off at the end of the film than he was at the beginning. He may not even realize why the Asset hated him. 

The climatic action sequence of the film- the car and SWAT van chase through Las Vegas stands as one of the best action sequences in recent memory; it's genuinely exciting and is a testament to how practical stunt-work. 

I do feel the previous three Bourne are better and that Jason Bourne needed to flesh things out to create a more complete story. It's ending certainly sets things up for another installment- this isn't the grand finale for the character.  Ideally, the next film may change things up a little more. Still, Jason Bourne is still a solid piece of action cinema. I do hope Jason Bourne gets a happy ending one day. Maybe it's naive of me but It's the least I can hope for a man I've known half my life.  

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Some Thoughts on Anton Yelchin

Often you don't realize that a certain actor is one of your favourites or means a great deal to you until you're given a chance to truly reflect. Anton Yelchin's death at the age of 27 in a car accident has made me realize how much I really liked him as an actor. 

I feel he was one of those actors it was easy to take for granted. He never had a role that made him a superstar, nor did he give the super flashy performances that called attention to themselves. He was a quintessential "every-man" actor, grounding often fantastical premises with a specific kind of relatability that was neither over or underdone. 

In films such as the Fright Night remake, Joe Dante's Burying the Ex, and the recent Green Room, Yelchin was the unorthodox hero. His presence was humourous but his played it straight, allowing you chuckle at the unexpectedness of his characters being in such a situation- but you could still accept him as the hero.      

He had a similar effect in the romantic dramas, Like Crazy and 5 to 7. He wasn't a typical romantic lead in either film but he was so charming and open you believed Felicity Jones and Berenice Marlohe could fall for him.  

I also really enjoyed his role as Pavel Chekhov in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, nailing the vocal mannerisms defined by Walter Koenig while also subtly making it his own. And his version of Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation matched up better with Michael Biehn's performance in the original than Jai Courtney's in Terminator Genisys.  

When an actor dies at such a young age one can't help but think of the massive hole left by their absence, the performances we'll never get to see. And it feels- like someone else said- he was just getting started. All we can do is appreciate the work he gave us. Art is the closest thing we as people have to immortality- and Yelchin lives- like others we lost too soon- through his art. 

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

A Haunting in Enfield: "The Conjuring 2"

Warning: Mild Spoilers

James Wan knows how to make a horror movie. Some may shrug their shoulders at that claim, thinking "So what?" But only a genuine film-maker who understands how to engage and manipulate his or her audience can work in the archetypal haunted house sub-genre- as Wan did in the first two Insidious films and the original The Conjuring (2013)-and make the cliches and familiar beats feel fresh and genuinely intense. He isn't interested in subverting your expectations of the genre; he's more concerned in reminding us of the pure thrill of being frightened by ''what goes bump in the night."

The Conjuring 2 begins with a prologue re-introducing us to Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), the ghost-busting couple of the original film-and dramatised versions of the real life Warrens. The Warrens are investigating the notorious Amityville murders of the DeFeo family, committed by the oldest son, Ronald DeFeo. During a seance, Lorraine enacts the murders- and in one shot, instead of Lorraine's reflection, DeFeo is seen in a mirror. In her vision, Lorraine encounters a demon dressed as a nun. After being shaken out of the vision, Lorraine no longer wants to investigate hauntings-especially when later she begins to see visions of Ed's death.

We then jump to the film's main plot, which is the 1977 haunting of the Hodgson residence in Enfield, England. As with the first film, the Enfield haunting does have basis in fact though there is scepticism regarding whether there was a supernatural presence in the house. The England setting provides an interesting contrast with the original film, which focused on a quintessentially American ghost story- the haunting of the Perron family at their farmhouse in Harrisville. 

The Conjuring 2 follows a similar formula to its predecessor as the Warrens are introduced at the beginning and confined to the background while we spend time with the family being haunted. Peggy Hodgson (Frances O'Connor) is a single mother raising her two daughters Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Billy (Benjamin Haigh), and Johnny (Patrick McAuley). Wan always wants to make the audience feel the experience of actually living in a haunted house- before our protagonists come to save the day. He does the same thing with the original Insidious- where Elise (Lin Shaye) comes in to help the Lambert family. 

It takes a little too long for the Warrens' story to meet up with the Hodgson's. And the whole movie can't help but feel too long in general. In his other horror films Wan uses a loose narrative framework on which to hang his set-pieces- and The Conjuring 2 feels like this approach taken to its logical extreme- in both good and bad ways. Wan doesn't seem interested in making a tight or lean film but The Conjuring 2 still works due to Wan's relish in scaring you. The film is arguably too unrelenting and I don't know how the film will play on re-watch- but it's the rare horror movie which gives too much rather than too little. 

This is also a horror film which demands to be viewed on a theatre screen. Wan uses the frame to great effect and there are several wonderfully staged sequences in this film. One of the best- if not the best- doesn't even include every camera movement or editing. There's a close-up on Ed talking to the spirit of Bill Wilkins behind him (who communicates through Janet but won't speak while everyone is looking). The background is out of focus but we can see the image of Bill as he take over Janet. At first I didn't notice the effect but when I did it added a subtle creepiness of the scene.   

There's another sequence earlier where Wan places the camera at angle so we're in one of the boys' room but can see out in the hallway. Wan loves making us wonder what's in the shadows of a house at night- one of the purest fears we can have. 

Cinematographer Don Burgess (replacing the original film's John R. Leonetti) invokes the feeling of 1970s Northern London. The look of the film is blends stylization and naturalism. His camera-work- including a tracking shot through the Hodgson household- is fluid and unnerving. 

Regarding the performances, Farmiga and Wilson provide warmth to an unsettling story. They make you believe in Ed and Lorraine's bond. In both films are like a light in the darkness. When they arrive at the Hodgson, it does feel that's there finally hope for the family. There's a charming scene where Ed plays the guitar and sings Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love With You." It's a scene which gives the audience and the characters some relief. 

Janet and Lorraine have a conversation where we finally see how Janet is affected by the haunting. It's also the first of two scenes where each of the Warrens recount to Janet how they felt different, unable to open up and put their faith in anyone until they met one another.

I was impressed with Wolfe's performance as Janet. She's no doubt the breakout actor of the film. Wolfe plays Janet with an authentic maturity while retaining a child-like quality. You feel the weight the haunting is taking on her even though her innocence is still intact. I also liked O'Connor's portrayal of a working-class mother, which was sympathetic without overdoing anything. The always reliable character actor Simon McBurney also does fine work as Maurice Grosse, the paranormal investigator who precedes and then assists the Warrens. He has nice scene with Lorraine where he tells her the death of his daughter makes him hope there is some kind of afterlife. It's a lovely scene that adds dimension to the character of Grosse. 

It also underlines Wan's optimistic side. Unsettling as the Conjuring and Insidious films are, Wan believes that good can overcome evil and life can move on after unspeakable horror. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, moving on and being able to heal is an idea that speaks to everyone. And Wan also believes its the family bond that can get us through emotional and physical trauma. This not only applies to the families the Warrens aid but to the Warrens themselves. What I loved most about The Conjuring 2 is it ends not with a jump scare or a sequel tease but with two people in love dancing. Its such a perfect summation of these two films and Wan's horror output these past five years that I feel a Conjuring 3 isn't necessary. But with the world a continuingly dark place, we may need Farmiga and Wilson to continue being that light in the darkness. 

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Essential Films: "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

The Essential Films: A series of writings on films I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.  

Warning: This essay contains spoilers. 

What's remarkable about John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate- based on Richard Condon's 1959 novel of the same name- is balances being a satire, a thriller, a science fiction "what if" story, a black comedy, a love story, and ultimately a tragedy- sometimes in the same scene. It remains cohesive throughout- never showing its seams and propelling us through to it's devastating climax. George Axelrod adapted Condon's novel and the film's cohesiveness and humanity owes a lot to him. 

The film's plot is outlandish enough to undermine the paranoia regarding communism in America during the 50s (which involved witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy) yet also works as a genuine nightmarish vision of the lengths those in power will go to for ever more control.

The dramatic irony of the film is the two Republican characters who supposedly want to weed communists in America-John ''Johnny'' Iselin (James Gregory) and his wife Eleanor (Angela Lansbury)- are actually part of a communist conspiracy. The liberal Senator Thomas Jordan (John McGiver)- who is a so called communist- is the most decent political figure in the entire film.

Eleanor's son from another marriage, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is a veteran of the Korean War. In the pre-title sequence Raymond and and the other members of his platoon are captured and taken to Communist China. Two days later the surviving soldiers return to America and credit Raymond with saving them. The platoon's captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) recommends Shaw for the Medal of Honor.  When asked what they think about Shaw, Marco and Corporal Al Melvin (James Edwards), they automatically say "Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life"

Both Marco and Melvin have nightmares about Raymond being brainwashed and killing two of the soldiers. These nightmares are in fact real. Raymond is to kill the presidential nominee for the Republican party. By doing so, Iselin- the vice-presidential candidate- can become President.

The flashback/nightmare sequences are master-classes in understated surreality. The captured soldiers believe they are at a ladies' tea and garden party. As the camera moves 360 degrees we move from the subjective point of view to the objective- the soldiers are in the presence of officials from Korea, China and Russia. The lady speaking is actually Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), who demonstrates the power of hypnotism by having Shaw strangle a fellow soldier. In a notable bit of dark comedy, Marco is yawning as Raymond strangles the soldier. The matter-of-fact nature of Marco's yawning makes the act of murder more horrific. We then cut to Marco waking up screaming, which puts an exclamation mark on the scene.

What brought me back to the film- and a big reason why I feel the film lives on so vividly in our minds- is at it's heart The Manchurian Candidate is a tragedy. And like all great tragedies, even when we know the ending we come back, subconsciously hoping the outcome will be different. Sinatra is the star but the film is really about Raymond, a man who's been suffocated by his mother his entire life and hasn't had experienced much true experience. The only time he's been in love is with Jordan's daughter Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish). Raymond and Jocelyn met during the summer before Raymond entered the army. Raymond tells Marco that Jocelyn made him a lovable person. This is one of the great summations of romance I've ever heard in a film. Love can make us better people.

Mrs. Iselin broke up the relationship due to Jordan being a political enemy. Raymond meets Jocelyn again at a party held by the Iselins and they decide to get married. When Jordan tells Mrs. Iselin that he plans to stop the Iselin's political plans Mrs. Iselin hypnotizes Raymond. She sends him to kill Jordan. In the process Raymond also kills Jocelyn.

Marco attempts to undo the programming but Raymond still falls under the hypnosis and goes to assassinate the presidential nominee. But at the moment he's supposed to kill the nominee Raymond resists his programming and kills The Iselins. Marco barges in and Raymond shoots himself in front of Marco. Raymond's chance for happiness died with Jocelyn and one can only sympathize with Raymond's decision to end his life. Harvey is perfect in the role of Shaw. He makes Shaw cold and stern and then slowly shows us the wounded heart at the core of this man. 

Sinatra brings a convincing sense of inner pain to the role of Marco. There's a sense that Marco has seen a lot through the years and he's been worn down by life. What stands out to me on re-watch is that Marco isn't really the hero of the film. He participates in the plot and has his own character arc but his ultimate role is that of a witness to the film's events. . In the last scene Marco reads the citations for the Medal of Honor winners. Marco invents one for Raymond:

"Made to commit acts too unspeakable to be cited here by an enemy who had captured his mind and his soul. He freed himself at last and in the end heroically and unhesitatingly gave his life to save his country. Raymond Shaw. Hell! Hell!" 
Marco had said earlier in the film that despite saying how brave and warm Shaw was, deep down he knew he thought Shaw was unlikable and repulsive. But why the film's end Marco has grown to appreciate Shaw as a man and see him as a hero- finally worthy of the Medal of Honor.  Gone is the shallow automatic response to his feelings towards Shaw and in it's absence a profound human one. Marco has gotten a piece of his humanity back. Coming back to the idea of the film as a tragedy, in the final scene Marco reminds me of the character typical in Shakespearean tragedy who comments on the horrible events that have unfolded.

Lansbury- in an Oscar-nominated performance- is brilliant as Mrs. Iselin. The way she shifts from the atypical overbearing mother and condescending wife to a more sinister power-hungry and fanatical political figure is masterful. The scene in which the assassination plot is described displays acting and direction completely in sync. The result in a unforgettable portrayal of political ambition. Mrs. Iselin never planned for Shaw to be the assassin but he was chosen so the Communists would have power over her. But she swears revenge on them. In her own twisted way Mrs. Iselin loves her son. This is punctuated by a concealed kiss on the lips.

I feel John Frankenheimer remains a somewhat underrated director- despite a prolific career. He began a TV director- directing live television episodes of shows such as Playhouse 90 and Climax!- and then made the transition to film with The Young Stranger (1957). He followed that up with two films starring Burt Lancaster, The Young Savages (1961) and  Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)the latter being nominated for 4 Oscars- though Frankenheimer would never receive a Best Director nomination for his work.

Frankenheimer's compositions and camera angles give the film an off-kilter, hallucinatory feeling throughout. Lionel Lindon's stark and rough black & white cinematography underlines the cold and bleak nature of the film. Look at how Frankenheimer shoots the murder of Bobby Lembeck- the platoon's youngest soldier. We see Shaw from Bobby's perspective- a perspective that's indifferent to the violence that's to be afflicted on him.

Lembeck has a innocent smile on his face, making the murder all the more upsetting and unusual.

Frankenheimer  shows us Lembeck's murder with out really showing it- in two succinct shots. A high angle shot has Lembeck falling over in his chair, followed by a shot of blood splatter on a poster of Stalin. The shots move by so fast we don't really see a bullet go through Lumbeck's head. Credit goes to Ferris Webster's Oscar-nominated editing, which creates the distinct pace and feel of the sequence and overall film. Since this is Melvin's dream, we see him wake up screaming- as did Marco earlier. The murder becomes almost impressionistic and Melvin's screams add to the horror.

Another evocatively directed scene is the murder of the Jordans. Shaw comes to the house late at night. Jordan tells Shaw he's happy to welcome him to the family. In the above both Jordan and Shaw are enveloped in shadow, contrasting Jordan's happiness at having a son-in-law and our knowledge of what is to come.

As Shaw pulls out his gun, Frankenheimer doesn't show Raymond's face. He's no longer Jordan's son-in-law- he's his executioner. 

Several shots later we see Raymond in a low angle show. He looms over us, making even more ominous.

The bullet goes through the milk carton Jordan is holding- concealing the violence while also punctuating the act.

Jocelyn races down and is killed by Shaw. After the murders Shaw is in the mid-ground while Jordan and Jocelyn lay dead in the foreground and background, respectively. Frankenheimer uses every part of the frame to great effect. Shaw is almost like a spectre in this shot- just as dead as his two victims.  

This is a film I would love to see on the big screen. It's images are so absorbing that I feel a theatre screen can only magnify the effect

Here are some other images that stand out:

With Mrs. Iselin in the background, she's like a devil on his shoulder. Ultimately  Marco will become an angel of sorts.

The image of Jocelyn as the Red Queen blends the two things that dominate Raymond's psyche: Jocelyn and the game of solitaire that unlocks his programming. It also underlines Shaw's troubled relationships with women.

Mrs. Iselin cares not about who her husband really is...only the image which she can project unto the public.

Now, I need to talk about the film's most unusual sub-plot, that of the relationship between Marco and Rosie Cheney (Janet Leigh). Rosie first meets Marco on a train to New York a Marco attempts to discover the truth about Raymond. They exchange an odd bit of dialogue, which has led some to theorize Rosie is Marco's handler or an agent of some kind. The back and forth between Marco and Rosie comes across as code rather than naturalistic dialogue. Moreover, when Rosie comes to bail Marco out of jail she says she's broken up with her fiance after meeting Marco. Her falling in love with Marco is very sudden- which isn't entirely unique to this film. While one can chalk it up to Marco requiring a love interest, in this movie you have to suspect everything.

Before I wrap things up, I want to focus a little more on the character of John Iselin. He's clearly a stand-in for McCarthy but his wife is the one pulling the strings. However Iselin is still dangerous- as Jordan points out when he's speaking to Mrs. Iselin. Jordan says Iselin is viewed as a fool but he does not. I couldn't help but think of Donald Trump during Jordan's speech.The film uses the figures of the Iselins to comment on McCarthyism. The film says there is evil in America but in the form of those pretending to act in the country's best interests. 

I want to mention another person involved with the film's production. Firstly, David Amram's score that invokes the melancholy and surreal nature of the film. Seco 

The Manchurian Candidate was made in the 60s, set in the 50s- yet remains somewhat out of time- an eerie else-world. Yet it still speaks to its time and ours as well. I appreciate the film now more than I did a decade ago. It's an evocative masterpiece that-akin to the brainwashing done to characters at the centre- imprints itself on our psyches- haunting us more than 50 years on.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Some Thoughts on the R-Rated Cut of Batman v. Superman and Pre-release Backlash

I don't know if there's ever been a film with more pre-release backlash than Zack Snyder's upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (henceforth abbreviated as BvS). The film is the follow-up to Snyder's 2013 Superman reboot, Man of Steel, a film I believe to be the most controversial and polarizing superhero/comic book based film ever made. The divided reaction to Man of Steel accounts for plenty of the scepticism surrounding BvS, as well as bias towards Marvel Studios' light-hearted output- as opposed to DC and Warner Bros.' more serious fare. Man of Steel struck many as too heavy, visually colourless and violent for a character like Superman. Even with the inclusion of the more acknowledged-as-dark character of Batman, similar criticisms have been directed at BvS; though I feel the film looks brighter in colour and much more "comic-booky."

This week the film became even more controversial with the announcement that there would be an R-rated cut of the film once it hits Blu-ray/DVD. This announcement sent the internet in to a fury. People criticized the announcement of this R-rated cut as a desperate attempt to capitalize on the success of Fox's Deadpool starring Ryan Reynolds, which has become the highest grossing X-Men related film in the franchise's history. Personally I think it's a stretch to suggest that the people behind the film featuring three of the most iconic superheroes- Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman- would feel a desire to chase the coattails of a Deadpool movie, particularly since the R-rated cut is not going to be in theatres.

Moreover Deadpool is financially successful but it's success is relative to it's budget, which is estimated at 58 million. BvS is 200 million. BvS has no reason to look to that film's success; and-again- this R-rated cut is going to be an optional extra on home video.

I think it all comes down to certain peoples' perception of WB and DC being desperate and incompetent, even though they appeared to have finally worked out the kinks in mapping out a plan for cinematic universe. Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman is already filming with BvS' Gal Gadot and David Ayer's Suicide Squad- featuring the first big screen appearance of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as well as several other notable DC villains- is coming out this August. 

I understand why many people don't like the idea of Superman and Batman being in a movie that even had an R-rated cut in the first place. These characters were made for children and children today still love these   characters. There's a fine line between being a little more adult and being unnecessarily violent. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (henceforth abbreviated as TDKR) is clearly an influence for Snyder- around the time of The Dark Knight's release back in 2008, Snyder had discussed wanting to film an adaptation of Miller's seminal graphic novel. 

Film critic Bob "MovieBob" Chipman believes TDKR to be an outdated story and that 90s comics, which TDKR anticipated, were a horrible time for the comic book medium- it was a time where stories became darker and grittier, essentially going for a more mature audience. I find that Chipman is against more serious comic-book based films, preferring the tone of Marvel Studios' films. He has labelled BvS "90s Comics: The Movie." I don't personally feel BvS is going to- or attempting to- reflect the 90s era of comic book writing. As with all adaptations of comic book characters, there's a mixing and matching of different eras and influences. TDKR is an influence but BvS is also likely to be it's own entity. And while some feel the entire enterprise is going to be grim and joyless, as evidenced in the trailers, there's going to be humour from Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor and even Batman himself ("I thought she was with you.") Even the subtitle, "Dawn of Justice" implies a sense of hope and heroics. 

I see people on-line jumping to conclusions and believe Superman is going to be brutally murdering people in this film; they even that the whole movie is going to be a gory bloodbath. Snyder has directed a hard R-rated superhero film before- 2009's Watchmen- but since BvS is being released as PG-13, whatever R-rated content may be minimal. There's been speculation the R-rating may involve a flashback involving Jared Leto's the Joker (who's set to appear in Suicide Squad) murdering Jason Todd, the second Robin- similar to how Joker killed him in the comics. I do believe any R-rated footage will most likely involve Batman. This isn't to say Batman is going to be straight-up murdering people- but there may be a little more blood in the R-rated cut involving his scenes with criminals. And we have to remember this is a Batman who's been at it for 20 some years. He's become more brutal towards criminals. Superman may be the one who ultimately brings him back from and the edge. 

BvS may not be aimed directly at children but I sincerely believe it's characters will still be heroes, still be people kids can look up. The R-rated cut will be for older audiences who want to see a different version. Whether the R-rated cut becomes the "definitive" version as with the longer cuts of Watchmen or other films, won't be answered for quite some time.