Friday, 12 January 2018

Shakespeare on Screen: Laurence Olivier's "Richard III"

Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955) was the third and last Shakespeare adaptation directed by Olivier, the two previous being Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), the latter which won Olivier both Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars. Olivier did not intend Richard III to be his final interpretation of Shakespeare as director. He planned to helm a version of Macbeth with Vivien Leigh (to whom he was then married) but unfortunately, due to Richard III not performing well financially the film never came to fruition. However, Richard III befits a trilogy capper and is perhaps Olivier's crowning achievement as a filmmaker. The film is gorgeously photographed, expertly blends the theatrical and the cinematic, and Olivier's performance is a transformative marvel.

While Richard isn't as complex a villain as Iago or Macbeth he's conceivably Shakespeare's most entertaining creations. Despite his villainous acts Richard is very likeable, largely because he's intelligent and witty. I think we can respect his intelligence. There's also a darkly comic aspect to the proceedings, which makes us laugh even though we know we shouldn't. Vocally, Olivier plays Richard with a high pitched cadence, setting his voice apart from the other characters' graceful voices. Physically, Olivier moves roughly, reminding us of the burden of Richard's hunchback. The performance is theatrical but Olivier understands how close-ups and medium shots allow for more subtlety than a performance on stage
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But let's also remember the other tremendous actors who act texture and depth to the film. The role of Lady Anne is difficult since she hates Richard for murdering her husband and father-in-law but being wooed by him. Claire Bloom convincingly plays a Anne as conflicted, not merely falling in love with Richard but harbouring conflicting feelings of lust and hatred.  

John Gielguld makes Clarence a vivid and sympathetic character. He conveys the horror of Clarence's nightmare and its lasting effect once awake. 

Olivier wanted to cast Orson Welles as Richard's co-conspirator Buckingham but Olivier's friend Ralph Richardson wanted it and he felt he owed it to Richardson. Richardson lends an intelligence and genuine moral compass to his portrayal.

While it's understandable why'd we focus on the performances when walking an adaptation of Shakespeare, it must be said that Richard III is an elegantly well-crafted film this is. Just re-watching it, I was really noticing the camera movement, Olivier's compositions and blocking of scenes. Most notably, he plays out scenes either in one long take or in several long takes. Olivier brilliantly brings us in Richard's first soliloquy ("Now is the winter of our discontent") by moving the camera move through a closed door, revealing Richard in the background beside the throne. It's an unsettling image but oddly inviting since Richard only shares his thoughts with us. Olivier performs the soliloquy in a single take. This reflects the theatrical experience but it's also cinematic due to the camera movement through rooms and the ability for Olivier to move away from and towards the camera.

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Olivier begins the film with the final scene of King Henry VI Part III, in which King Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke, adding warmth to the film) is coronated (the first shot, which is repeated when Richard is crowned, is a crown hanging from a ceiling). This provides context for viewers are new to this play. It also allows for the happiness of the coronation to be subverted as we transition to Richard stating his plan to become King. 

Olivier stages the scene where Edward (on his deathbed) learns of his brother Clarence's death in multiple long takes, only cutting on specific moments. The blocking of this scene and its camera movements are all specific and concise. It takes what could be a visually dull scene and makes it dynamic in regards to how its acted and filmed. 

What's also visually striking about this film is how colourful it is, as well as Roger K. Furse's extravagant production design. On the Criterion Collection commentary, playwright and stage director Russell Lees says there's an almost surrealistic, storybook quality to the look of the film. He argues Olivier does this to prepare the audience for the heightened quality of Shakespeare's language. The production design and cinematography remind me of an old Disney cartoon, particularly the recurring image of Richard's shadow. The most disquieting instant of this image is when Richard enters Anne's bed chamber. He opens the door and the camera pans down to show the bottom of her dress and his shadow enveloping it.  

Some other visuals I love include Richard looking out and through windows, with the deep-focus photography allowing us to seeing what he does. The introduction of Richard is also effective. At first, we only see the back of his head. Richard then turns his head. It appears as if he's looking at us but he's really looking at Buckingham. The aforementioned image of hanging crown is repeated when Richard is crowned and when Richmond becomes King Henry VII. It's a wonderful motif, representing the crown outliving its wearers, a continuously passed down symbol of power. The film begins with one King ushering in a new era of peace, one which doesn't last long. By the end Henry VII is doing the same, ideally an age of peace which lasts longer.

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Lees argues we should feel bad for liking Richard and adds that Lord Stanley (Laurence Naismith) is crowning us at the end, symbolizing power belonging to the people in democracy. Moreover, now that we have realized that we all have evil within us, what kind of ruler will we be?

How do we reconcile the pleasure we take in Richard's personality and scheming with the awareness of the pain and suffering he inflicts on others? We have to like Richard for his defeat to have the sobering effect it needs, to understand the inevitable downfall that follows ascension by murder and betrayal. Though Olivier does excise Queen Margaret, whose presence exemplifies the theme of being haunted by the past, the theme is still present, particularly when you consider Richard is literally haunted by ghosts before the final battle. Unfortunately, Olivier removes Richard's soliloquy after being haunted but I believe Olivier trusts the audience to understand Richard's guilt. When Richard dies Olivier has Richard lift his sword up by the blade, another of the film's trademark images. Lees highlights how its the sign of the cross- Olivier gives Richard a "a moment of grace".

Is Richard a tragic figure? He's certainly not a tragic figure like Othello or Hamlet, and on the commentary, former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Wilders, argues Richard lacks "tragic depth" even though the plot follows the structure of tragedy. I would argue villainy always comes from a very human place. While I don't condone Richard's actions I understand his bitterness at being a hunchback and his desire for power. I also think there's something sorrowful about being so hateful and power-hungry you'd have your own brother murdered. I would put forth that Richard is also a product of his environment, one that is full of violence and betrayal. and unclean hands. Again, this is not to apologize for Richard just to put his actions in a larger context, particularly that of Shakespeare's other History plays, which are full of betrayal 

Olivier created something special with this film. While we didn't get another Shakespeare adaptation from him, I'm thankful Olivier concludes his trilogy with a triumphant blend of theatre and cinema, and one of the great screen performances of all time.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Looking Forward to the 2018 Oscars

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While it's difficult not to feel somewhat cynical about awards season, particularly in the final weeks  before the Oscars, I can't help but still be invested in the guessing game that is the Oscars. And after Moonlight winning Best Picture this year and young members being inducted in to the Academy, could we be looking at a more diverse and exciting line-up? We'll have to see. I want to look at several of the categories and examine the contenders.
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Best Picture

Jordan Peele's Get Out is one of the year's best reviewed years and would likely been seen as an egregious snub is left out of the Best Picture race. It says more about race in America than other prestige films while operating as an entertaining horror thriller. While horror films have been nominated before, a horror-comedy may be a tougher sale.

Martin McDonagh's The Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (unwieldy title aside) is also capturing the zeitgeist- it concerns a woman name Mildred Hayes' (Frances McDormand) whose daughter's murder has yet to be investigated by the police. The anger at injustice and the inaction of authority figures can't help but be relevant. If it and McDormand (who's the Best Actress frontrunner) win, it'll be the first we've had a Best Picture/Actress win since Million Dollar Baby in 2005.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk was one of the summer's biggest non-franchise hits, proving Nolan's drawing power as a director. It's been called his masterpiece and could be this year's Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that sweeps the technical awards. It could even snag Nolan's first Best Director Oscar. Though I wonder if it'll have the same impact on smaller screens when watched on screeners. Some may also feel the film is too "cold" and doesn't have enough character or story.

If that's the case, the WWII movie to support would be Joe Wright's The Darkest Hour, which chronicles newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill who has to decide what action to take regarding Adolf Hitler. I've heard it's a good companion piece to Nolan's film. And a story about standing your ground against fascism will speak to younger voters as much as older ones.

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Steven Spielberg's The Post is another period piece that could be a contender. The film concerns the Washington Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Said papers revealed a cover-up by the United States regarding the War. The film was just awarded Best Film of the year by the National Board of Review and Ton Hanks and Meryl Streep took lead acting honours.  You can't count Spielberg when's he in prestige drama mode, especially with Hanks and Streep leading the cast. This could be another Bridge of Spies or even Lincoln. And in a time when Journalists reporting the truth are called liars, the subject matter is timely.

Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water, taking place in the 60s, is perhaps this year's oddest period film. It's Del Toro's most acclaimed film since 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, with some critics saying it's superior. While its love story between a woman and a fish creature won't work for everyone, the film is also said to be a love letter to cinema itself, which will appeal to the Academy (Argo, The Artist) However, it did miss the NBR top ten.

Call Me By Your Name is already being heralded as a masterpiece, even though it's stirred controversy for its a depiction of a relationship between a teenage boy and an older man. It could ultimately not make the cut.

While Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird is a small-scale film, it's stellar reviews will be hard to ignore. It may be this year's Brooklyn (which also starred Lady Bird's Saorise Ronan.) The Florida Project is another small-scale film that will benefit from critics' reviews. And both were in the NBR top ten.

Netflix could be getting their first Best Picture nomination for Dee Rees' Mudbound. It's gotten strong reviews and deals with issues of racism and life after war, subjects right up the Academy's alley.

Moving on from small-scale indie to a Hollywood blockbuster, could Wonder Woman be the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture? I have my doubts- it's generic climax could lead it to being seen as another superhero film. However, Warner Bros. is be pushing for it; and would be meaningful for the first superhero film to be Best Picture nominee to be led and directed by women.

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Best Director

Christopher Nolan has the aura of "overdue" around him (he appeared to be a sure-thing for Inception). While he has been criticised for being emotionally cold I think he could win Best Director even if Dunkirk doesn't win Best Picture. Best Picture/Director have been split recently, with Director going to the big technical film- i.e. Gravity, The Revenant  and La La Land). Guillermo Del Toro can also be considered overdue since he didn't get in for Pan's Labyrinth. The Shape of Water is already a critically beloved film- and after fellow Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu winning, it feels like his time.

Martin McDonagh, like Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea, is a playwright who'll likely receive his first Best Director nomination for Three Billboards. He's already an Oscar winner for his 2006 short film, Six Shooter. He was also nominated in Best Original Screenplay for 2008's In Bruges. 

Greta Gerwig would only be the fifth woman to be nominated for Best Director if she gets in for Lady Bird. And Dee Rees' would be the first African American female director nominee if Mudbound gains momentum.

Spielberg can't be counted out for The Post but if feels like the Academy will want to nominate new blood. Joe Wright missed for Atonement a decade ago but returning to WWII with The Darkest Hour could garner him his first nomination.

Call Me By Your Name is one of the year's most acclaimed films and Luca Guadagnino could be the Michael Hanake-esque nominee

Jordan Peele made of the most assured directorial debuts in recent memory with Get Out, balancing, horror, comedy, satire and drama with ease. He'd be the fifth black director to receive a Best Director nomination.

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Best Actress

I mentioned earlier that Frances McDormand is the front-runner for Three Billboards. She's one before (for Fargo) but the argument could definitely be made she's overdue for a second, considering she's been a consistently great actress. I could see Margot Robbie being a genuine threat to McDormand for her portrayal of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Actresses de-glamming themselves for a role (i.e. Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron) have won before and like Kidman and Theron, Robbie is playing a real life person. Saorise Ronan was the front-runner for Brooklyn a couple of years ago before Brie Larson stole her momentum. Her performance in Lady Bird will likely get her a third nomination (her first was for Best Supporting Actress for Atonement). 

Some consider Meryl Streep over-nominated (especially after her nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins) but you can never count her out, especially starring alongside Tom Hanks and being directed by Steven Spielberg in The Post. If her performance is genuinely one of her best then she's probably in.

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Sally Hawkins plays a mute woman in The Shape of Water and giving a silent performance led Jane Wyman and Holly Hunter to Oscars for Johnny Belinda and The Piano, respectively. Hawkins has gotten great reviews and already appears to be a favourite for some people. She also benefits from her work in Maudie earlier this year. Moreover, some may remember her being left out for Happy-Go-Lucky almost ten years ago and want to rectify that.  Though arguably, she could be like Amy Adams in Arrival and ultimately miss out on nomination morning.

Jessica Chastain in Aaron Sorkin's directorial debut Molly's Game (he also wrote the screenplay) appears to be the same situation as last year's Miss Sloane, a well-reviewed performance that gets left by the wayside. Though with one of the most acclaimed actresses working today reciting Sorkin's writing, she can't be entirely dismissed.

I don't think last year's winner Emma Stone will be nominated again for Battle of the Sexes. It feels like the film kind of came and went, though a Golden Globes nomination in the comedy/musical category is certainly likely. And the winner before her, Brie Larson- unless she gets a surprise SAG nomination- is probably not going to get any love this year for The Glass Castle.

Speaking of ingenue winners, I thought Jennifer Lawrence gave her best performance in Darren Aronofsky's Mother! And with 4 nominations already at such a young age it's not a stretch to think she could get in. However, it's a polarising film that turns off many people.

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Salma Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner could be another Viggo Mortensen or Demian Bechir, propelled by critics' support in to the final five.

Annette Bening missed for 20th Century Women but she has another chance this year for Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. But she'll need a good critics' push and a strong campaign to get in to the top five.

Nicole Kidman delivered strong work alongside Colin Farrell in The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The Beguiled is a better bet but she seems too far down the list of contenders.

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Best Actor

Gary Oldman seems like a shoe-in for Best Actor in The Darkest Hour. All the ingredients are there: he's never one and is considered overdue, he's covered in make-up and is playing a real-life figure (Winston Churchill) in a WWII film. And if the film gets in for Best Picture/Director and technical awards, all the better. 

Some consider Denzel Washington to have been robbed for Fences and if anyone could challenge Oldman it'd be Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq. However, the reviews are mixed and it just doesn't seem like it'll be a contender.

Another major challenger could be Daniel Day-Lewis in his supposed final role, The Phantom Thread, which re-teams him with his There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson (who directed him to his second Best Actor Oscar). Day-Lewis was the first to win three Best Actor Oscars and if he won again he'd make history again. Still, Anderson's films have become increasingly polarising and if the film doesn't hit off, Day-Lewis could miss.  

Tom Hanks hasn't been nominated since 2000's Castaway and has missed out for Captain Phillips and Sully. He's the type of actor that makes it look easy, which is why I think he's often overlooked. But he could in for The Post, playing the editor of the Washington Post Ben Bradlee, a role that got Jason Robards a Supporting Actor Oscar for All The President's Men back in 1977

On the younger side of things, Andrew Garfield could pull a Eddie Redmayne and receive a consecutive Best Actor nomination for Breathe, in which he plays Robin Cavendish, who was inflicted with polio at the age of 28. With the love of his wife he sets out to help other polio patients. I can't help but think of The Theory of Everything, which won Redmayne the Best Actor Oscar. 

I feel Jake Gyllenhaal has been unfairly left out of Best Actor for his recent work (particularly Nightcrawler) but he has a chance this year for Stronger, the story Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. Gyllenhaal benefits from a more open Best Actor field and the strength of previous un-nominated work.

James Franco in The Disaster Artist is a funny situation. Older viewers won't get why his interpretation of The Room director Tommy Wisseau is funny but he could get a lot of support from younger voters. 
This also appears to be the most transformative performance Franco has given, which also helps.

Timothee Chalamet would be one of the youngest Best Actor nominees in history if he gets in for Call Me By Your Name. I don't think he'll win but it'd a major boost for his career.

If Get Out really hits off, Daniel Kuluuya could get in. He's arguably the most underrated part of the movie and he grounds the film with genuine emotion.

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Best Supporting Actress

Allison Janney has received accolades for he work on TV but has never gotten an Oscar nomination. That's likely to change come nomination morning. Her performance as Tonya Harding's mother, LaVona Fay Golden in I, Tonya is the kind of meaty role that can take her a win, though I've heard the character is one-note. It's been remarked that the category this year is full of mothers. Laurie Metcalf and Holly Hunter are also up for playing mothers in Lady Bird and The Big Sick, respectively. It makes sense why Hunter is being positioned as the acting representative for the film. Along with Ray Romano, she's the most known actor in the film and has some standout moments.

Moving on from mothers to wives/girlfriends, Claire Foy being campaigned in this category for playing Diana Cavendish in Breathe appears to be a case of category fraud a la Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl. Tatiana Maslany, who like Foy and Janney has gotten a lot praise for her TV work could get in for Stronger. And If The Darkest Hour is another The King's Speech, Kristen Scott Thomas could easily get in for playing Clementine Churchill.

Octavia Spencer could get a consecutive nomination after Hidden Figures for The Shape of Water. Mary J. Blige is also getting buzz for Mudbound, which would give us two black actresses in this category. And if Hong Cho gets in for Alexander Payne's science-fiction comedy Downsizing, we'd have the first Thai actress nominated for an Oscar. 

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Best Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe could be getting a career achievement Oscar for his work in The Florida Project. He's the most recognisable actor in the film and would be the way to honour the film- since it faces strong competition in other categories.

Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are both up for Three Billboards. Rockwell is a hard-working character actor who's never been nominated and it feels like Harrelson is due for another nomination considering his post-True Detective work. Unfortunately, two actors from the same film in the same category can lead the two cancelling each other out.

Speaking of which, there may be some category fraud with Armie Hammer being in Best Supporting Actor for Call Me By Your Name, where he's more of a co-lead. He and Chalamet's co-star Michael Stuhlbarg could actually sneak in over Hammer.

Ben Mendelshon is an expert character actor and may finally get his due with his role as King VI  in The Darkest Hour. Buzz is also growing for Mark Rylance in Dunkirk. He's the film's best bet for an acting nomination but I feel the film's characterisation is too minimal to snag a nomination.

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Best Original Screenplay

Martin McDonagh's screenplay for Three Billboards could be the one to beat but let's not forget Lady Bird, written by Greta Gerwig and loosely based on her adolescence. Jordan Peele's sharp and insightful screenplay for Get Out certainly deserves to be here. The Darkest Hour feels like the British Lincoln- which won Tony Kushner a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar in 2013. The film's writer, Anthony McCarten, could win. Moreover, he's a previous nominee for The Theory of Everything- as both screenwriter and producer.  

The Big Sick, written by Emily V. Gordan and Kumail Nanjiani and based on their relationship, could win, especially since this would be the place to honour the film. 

If The Shape of Water is to be a major contender Guillermo Del Toro's screenplay is sure to be here.

Look out for: The Post, The Florida Project

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Best Adapted Screenplay

This is where Call Me By Your Name could win, especially with James Ivory (of Merchant Ivory) being the film's screenwriter. Ivory hasn't been nominated at the Oscars since 1994 (Best Director, The Remains of the Day) and this would be his first screenplay nomination.

Aaron Sorkin missed out for Steve Jobs but he could come back for Molly's Game, especially if Chastain gets in for Best Actress.

If Mudbound becomes a Best Picture contender, Dee Rees and and Virgil Williams' screenplay will have a good chance of scoring a nomination 

The younger voters who would get James Franco in to Best Actor for The Disaster Artist would also put support behind its screenplay, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

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Best Cinematography

Are the Academy ever going to give Roger Deakins an Oscar. His work on Blade Runner 2049 may finally earn him his first Oscar. Hoyte van Hoytema is gunning for his first nomination and possibly first win for Dunkirk.

Bruno Delbonnel has been nominated four times and will surely get a fifth for The Darkest Hour. The Shape of Water's Dan Lausten has never been nominated but appears poised to receive his first for Del Toro's romantic fantasy. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is another conceivable newcomer for Call Me By Your Name.

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Best Editing 

I'm betting on Dunkirk to win this award, since the film is so much about its specific editing. Lee Smith has already been nominated twice and perhaps will win his first Oscar. The Darkest Hour's editor Valerio Bonelli is also a viable contender. Blade Runner 2049 will reasonably get several deserved technical nominations, and its editing contributes to its atmosphere as much as its cinematography. Expect Joe Walker, who was nominated for Arrival, to secure a second consecutive nomination and his third overall (his first being for 12 Years a Slave). Walter Fasano has already acquired a Spirit Awards nomination for his editing of Call Me By Your Name, which gives a boost. 

So, those are pretty much my thoughts as of now. What are your predictions and/or hopes for this year's Oscar nominations?

Friday, 3 November 2017

Revisiting the Thor Films

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With Thor: Ragnarok being released to North American audiences this weekend, I decided to revisit the first two Thor films. It feels like a long time since we've gotten a Thor film. Thor: The Dark World came out back in 2013, pre-The Winter Soldier and the first Guardians of the Galaxy. That film ended with a huge twist- Tom Hiddelston's Loki disguising himself as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and ruling on the throne of Asgard. I find it surprising such a major plot point was never addressed in the subsequent Marvel films- though I assume Ragnarok wraps it up. 

The first Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the film that opened up the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond Tony Stark/Iron Man. We already knew Stark was part of a larger universe but Thor announced that Norse Gods existed in this world. Branagh's background in theatre and Shakespeare suited the...well, Shakespearean qualities of the source material. The best parts of the film take place in Asgard. Usually I find the the fantasy elements in Hollywood blockbusters can come across as dry and exposition-heavy. However, I like the interpersonal dynamics of these scenes. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is about to be crowned Asgard's King when Frost Giants invade. They are killed but Thor wants to retaliate. His anger at this "day of triumph" being ruined and Odin dismissing Thor's desire for revenge shows his arrogance while also making him relatable. Loki is more reserved and an observational than Thor, an Iago-esque character that remains the MCU's most alluring antagonist.

Bo Welch's production design and the  gives Asgard a somewhat alien look feel. There's a grandness and mystery to it, with an specifically spooky atmosphere to it. Alexandra Byrne's costume design finds a middle ground between fantasy and science-fiction. I love how Thor's red cape stands out in this show. I also think it's a beautiful example of the production design, art direction and direction.
After battling with the Frost Giants in their home world of Jotenheim, Odin banishes Thor to Earth (Midgard to the Asgardians) and strips of his power. He sends Thor's hammer Mjolnir as well but Thor won't be able to pick it up until he becomes worthy. Thor encounters Astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman,) Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings). S.H.I.E.L.D  shows up and takes all their equipment and research due to the three being where Thor landed on Earth. S.H.I.E.L.D's presence in the story is a good example of organic world-building. It makes sense they'd be in this story because they're interested in Mjolnir. They also provide essential conflict for Thor on Earth while not being outright villains. When Thor can't lift Mjolnir at the S.H.I.E.L.D research site and then is lied to by Loki (He tells Thor he's permanently banished) Thor goes from brass braggart to humbled man with no home shows how good Hemsworth is in this role. He's able to be both arrogant, charming, romantic, heroic, and vulnerable. It's a true superhero movie performance.

I think the best scene in the movie is Loki confronting Odin about true lineage. Loki is a Frost Giant- Laufey's (Colm Feore) son- Odin adopted when he was a baby, after Odin waged war against the Frost Giants. We feel Loki's resentment at being lied to and realising while Thor was always favoured over him. Odin's pain over his relationship with both his sons' being broken is also apparent. While Odin can be viewed as simply a pay-cheque role, I think Hopkins is great at both scenery-chewing and more deeply-felt moments. What's intriguing about Loki is you see the evolution of his villainy, though I think the script makes things a little too convenient for Loki, with Thor being banished and Odin, overcome with emotion, falls in to the "Odinsleep." And honestly, I'm still not sure what that it is.
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I wish this film was set entirely in Asgard- a Shakespearean Lord of the Rings mixed with Game of Thrones and 300. I do understand why they needed to create a connection between Thor and Earth, particularly his relationship with Jane. Hemsworth and Portman have good chemistry, the two characters clearly like each other. However, I think this romance needed a few more scenes to develop and deepen, particularly when we get to the second film. The relationship never feels like the grand romance it's supposed to be. 

Returning the matter of scale, I also think the filmmakers wanted to do a throwback to what a Thor movie would be like in the 80s or 90s. I find this movie resembles a early 2000s version of a Thor movie made with 2011 special effects. Even the use of the Foo Fighter's "Walk" over the end credits feels reminiscent of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films.  

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I remember enjoying Thor: The Dark World in theatres, despite feeling it was just a filler film. Revisiting it for the first time since theatres, it's even more apparent the film is essentially a two part TV finale rather than a movie. It's story has potential but it's never fully developed enough, especially in a movie that's under two hours. That's not to say you can't have a well-developed story in under two hours, just that this film felt it needed more time to breathe. I glean there was difficulty in figuring where to take Thor next. Thor doesn't really have an arc in this film. At the beginning he doesn't want to be King of Asgard and by the end he feels the same way. The only real change is he admires Loki for sacrificing his life to help him; but that emotional development is undermined by the ending reveal, essentially an"Oh that Loki" moment that reinforces the filler quality of the film. 

The scenes between Thor and Loki are the film's strongest and emotional. Loki continues to be more multilayered than the other MCU villains. Moreover, The conversation between Loki and his his mother Frigga (Rene Russo) reveals Loki's emotional vulnerability. When he learns of her death at the hands of the Dark Elves, he psychically smashes things in his cell. Without dialogue or even seeing his face, we feel his anger and despair and his mother's death.  

Alan Taylor, who had directed several Game of Thrones episodes, replaced Branagh on this film. Taylor made sense as a replacement due to Game of Thrones having the qualities that would suit a Thor film but I feel Taylor doesn't bring the same directorial stamp as Branagh. Asgard does have a more Game of Thrones feel but it lacks the atmosphere and striking visual look of the first film

Malekith is the weakest villain of the MCU thus far, a shame since Christopher Eccleston is wasted and the character is much more entertaining sinister in the comics. I do like the Star Trek/Wars look of the Dark Elves, with their blasters and spaceships. They're a good representation of how the Thor side of the MCU blends fantasy and science fiction.

The teleportation climax is inventive and Thor getting on the train is a great bit. Skarsgard smartly deadpans Selvig's insanity after being possessed by Loki in The Avengers and is pretty funny- but I wish this plot thread was treated more dramatically. 

Ragnarok is supposed to be the best of the three Thor films. I gather it's the Iron Man 3 to The Dark World's Iron Man 2, less filler, more style and energy. I think Thor is a mostly good film and The Dark World has its entertaining moments but Ragnarok has be excited. Walking in to the Marvel films I always hope it'll be my favourite one so far. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

"That's a name I've not heard in a long time..." Some thoughts on the Obi Wan Movie

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I find it a little odd how many Star Wars films we've gotten that take place before the original trilogy- the prequel trilogy, last year's Rogue One, and next year's Han Solo film. The original Star Wars doesn't feel to me like part four of an ongoing saga, even though it begins in the middle of a chase sequence. While the film establishes a larger mythology and backstory the film stands on its own.  This isn't to say I don't appreciate expanding the mythology- the mythology is I love most about Star Wars, even though I have issues with how the prequels dealt with certain events. I liked that Rogue One gave a reason for the Death Star's design flaw. This was an example of ret-conning I felt actually improved the original film's story. 

It was recently announced we will be getting an anthology film centred around Obi Wan Kenobi, with Oscar nominated filmmaker Stephen Daldry in talks to direct. It hasn't been revealed what will be the film's story but Lucasfilm and Disney are somewhat limited with what they can do with Obi Wan. The film can't really be an origin story since the prequel trilogy- even though its main focus was Anakin Skywalker's turn to the dark side and his transformation in to Darth Vader-  was about Obi Wan's relationship with Anakin and his journey from apprentice to Jedi Master. In The Phantom Menace we're introduced to Obi Wan as a padawan learner; he meets 9 year old Anakin, loses his master Qui-Gon Jinn at the hands of Sith Lord Darth Maul and kills Maul, becoming a Jedi Knight and taking on Anakin as an apprentice. In the subsequent prequels Obi Wan becomes a Jedi Master and a general in the Clone Wars. Ultimately Obi Wan and Anakin duel, leading to Anakin becoming horrifically burned  and being placed in the iconic Darth Vader suit. The prequel trilogy even ends with Obi Wan walking off in to the Tatooine desert, book-ending the trilogy, as he was in the first scene of the trilogy. 

The only other way to do an Obi Wan origin is to go back pre-The Phantom Menace, with Obi Wan as a teen. For me there's not really a story there; Obi Wan's story begins with The Phantom Menace and ends with him reunited in death with his friends at the end of Return of the Jedi. The Clone Wars have already been covered pretty much by the animated series. To me- and I always presumed this would be the case- the story of the Obi Wan film would be his time on Tatooine looking over Luke Skywalker and living as a hermit. I know some people will wonder how you could make a movie out of that time period. I envision it as western/samurai film, with Obi-Wan helping people- going by the name "Ben" of course. George Lucas was heavily inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa so I think it's appropriate to return to those works for inspiration- think Yojimbo and Sanjuro. 

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The film would largely be a character study, exploring the psychology of a man who's lost everything. The Republic he fought for has become an authoritarian Empire, the Clones who fought alongside him betrayed him and the other Jedi Knights, his friend and brother has become an agent of evil, for which he's partly responsible, and the Lars family- who are raising Luke- don't want a thing to do with him. It's a pretty bleak story, even though, as with the other prequel films, we know there will eventually be hope. The fact that the filmmakers behind Rogue One were allowed to kill off the entire principal cast gives me hope we could get a film that shows Obi Wan in a really dark place. 

Of course, Ewan McGregor would return. McGregor has expressed interest in the past regarding a possible solo film. For people who grew up with the prequels there would be a definite nostalgic reaction to McGregor's return. And even though I have my issues with the prequels I do like McGregor's performance- particularly his final moments with Anakin. Joel Edgerton- who played Luke's Uncle Owen Lars in the prequels could also return. I'd like to see the conflict between Owen and Obi Wan. Owen would blame Obi Wan for Anakin's turn to the dark side and wouldn't want leading Luke down the path of becoming a Jedi. 
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I do hope we eventually move past the original trilogy's characters and events but I hold that there's real potential for a compelling and beautiful drama about Obi Wan during his life on Tatooine, a film that isn't merely another franchise movie.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Some Thoughts on the Future of the Terminator Franchise

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Spoilers for The Terminator series

When James Cameron directed The Terminator back in 1984, it was only his second film- after Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), and it ultimately changed his entire career, giving him the clout and respect to eventually direct the sequel to Alien- Aliens. He would eventually return to the Terminator universe with Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), a film that revolutionized special effects. And of course, he directed the two box office champs, Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), the latter of which was also revolutionary in regards to its special effects. 

While Cameron is still very much focused on doing more Avatar films, this week he brought up the possibility of doing more Terminator films. Apparently he and producer David Ellison- who owns the rights to the franchise- have had discussions about a possible three movie story-line. Cameron hasn't been involved with the three previous Terminator films- Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Terminator Salvation (2009) and Terminator: Genisys (2015) Cameron says was supportive of the Arnold Schwarzenegger led 3rd and 5th films- since him and Schwarzenegger have remained friends throughout the years- but adds they didn't work for him, "for various reasons."    

For me I believe it's been difficult to make further Terminator films post the second film, arguably even the first film. This is because everything that occurs is on a loop- Kyle Reese will always be John Connor's father, Skynet can only ever be created because the Terminator came back. But coming back to T2, that's the saga's end. Sarah Connor and John prevented Judgement Day, Miles Dyson is dead. There was even an alternate ending set in the altered future where John had become a senator. In T3 all that was undone- Judgement Day is unavoidable. It was a bold way to end the film but the rest of the film- while decent- felt to similar to the previous films. Salvation was set in the future only briefly glimpsed in the first two films. It had potential but didn't capture the oppressive dread of that world. I admired the ideas explored in Genisys but it was too convoluted and fell in to the trap of having the plot revolve around preventing Judgement Day again.

The Terminator was never really designed to set up a franchise. As I mentioned before, the first film is a closed loop. And since time travel is a major factor in the franchise, things keep getting more confusing with each new film. If Cameron wants to direct or produce further Terminator films I think the best approach is to start with a new continuity. It makes things cleaner and less confusing. 

I would also suggest not focusing on Sarah or John; create new human characters we can get invested in. I think you can still keep the basic premise: a machine comes back to kill a human and prevent the machines' defeat in the future. Bob "MovieBob" Chipman proposed ignoring the post-T2 films; the film would be set in a post-labour future where machines haven't turned against us. However, the machines have made certain people obsolete since they're not need for labour anymore. Someone would go back to prevent this, targeting Dyson's now grown daughter who has a prototype terminator who can protect her. Chipman also recommended going for a smaller scale, with which I strongly agree. I like the idea of the franchise going back its horror/sci-fi roots rather than attempting to repeat T2 again.

I don't know if Cameron will ever get around to doing these hypothetical Terminator films or when we'll see another film in the franchise. I'm always open-minded about reinventing a franchise- look at the new Planet of the Apes films. Until then- well, we'll always have the first two films. 

Friday, 21 July 2017

Some Thoughts on the Latest Remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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When it was announced this past week that Warner Bros. will be producing another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the fourth to date) it reminded me none of these remakes are sequels to Don Siegel's 1956 original (all these films are based on Jack Finney's 1955 novel Body Snatchers) or Philip Kaufman's 1978 version. This makes this series of films singular in the annals of horror. However, I find it apt there's never been an Body Snatchers sequel. There's something absolute about its premise, making it difficult to move beyond the initial concept- aliens who can replicate human bodies and plan to take over the planet. 

Whenever this story is retold the body snatchers are always a metaphor for the fears of the time, whether it be the red scare and McCarthyism or post-Watergate paranoia; every era offers an analogy. There's also something timelessly terrifying about this premise; You the know the person you love isn't the same but the changes are subtle, which is more unsettling. What if we had our humanity completely taken away? For me, Kaufman's film is one of the bleakest horror films ever made. It's ending captures has a hopeless dread that reverberates to this day.

I haven't seen the last remake- 2007's The Invasion, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel- so I can't comment on that film but I admire how each of these films' directors have a distinct take on this story. When Abel Ferrara did his version in 1993, it was set on an army base rather than in small town or city- the previous versions' settings. The new version will be written by David Leslie Johnson, who wrote The Conjuring 2. I liked that film despite it being slightly overlong. Producer John Davis (1987's Predator) is also on board. I'm curious to see who will direct. I'd like to see Duncan Jones get a shot, whose Moon and Source Code are two of the better sci-fi films of the last decade. I'd like to see what Patty Jenkins could do with the material; I think Wonder Woman is among the strongest recent superhero films both in theme and character. Jenkins can absolutely make an intelligent and emotional genre film.

So, what do you think of another Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake? And who would you like to direct?


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

"Was he slow?" Baby Driver

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Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

Edgar Wright is someone who's in love with his job as a filmmaker, which has shown in every film he's made thus far. This love affair continues with his latest film Baby Driver. The film's story involves familiar genre archetypes: a getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) who wants to quit the life of crime, the crime boss (Kevin Spacey) who reels him in for another job, the waitress with whom our hero wants to run away (Lily James) and the assortment of criminals along for the ride (Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, and Jamie Foxx). It's an old song but performed with genuine style, charm and heart.

Speaking of songs, Baby Driver can be best described as a film noir musical. This is because our hero-Baby- listens to music while heists are being pulled off and when he's out-driving the police. He also records conversations and makes songs out of them. The film as an extension of Baby's mindset; Wright shot and edited the action sequences to the music, creating a unique synthesis of sound and visuals that's organic to the film's universe. 

We learn Baby listens to music constantly due to a childhood car accident which left with him a constant humming in his right ear. The same accident also killed both his musician mother (Sky Ferreira) and father (Lance Palmer). When he was still a kid, Baby stole from Spacey's Doc. Doc was so impressed that he's used Baby for every heist. Baby is in debt to Doc and is due to retire after one more heist. Like Ryan Gosling's unnamed character in Drive Baby is great at his job but still strikes others as odd. Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Foxx's Bats are antagonistic towards him. However, due to his youth several of the criminals treat him as a surrogate son or little brother. 

Hamm and Gonzalez's Bonnie and Clyde married couple Buddy and Darling treat him with a kind of bemusement- not quite affection but a certain level of respect. Baby has a complicated relationship with Doc, who is part extorter/part father figure to Baby. Spacey is one of the best actors at doing quiet menace while being darkly funny. When he brings Baby back in to the fold after debts had supposedly been settled Doc casually remarks that he could cripple Baby and kill everyone he loves if Baby doesn't keep working for him; it's this scene where Baby realizes how much he's still in Doc's grip- and desperately needs a way out. 
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While James Debora and the whole love story between her and Baby is somewhat underwritten, she and Elgort's chemistry makes the relationship very pleasurable to watch unfold. Wright understands that there's a inherent romanticism inherent in noir- wanting to drive away with a beautiful woman, turning your back on the world of violence and greed- and he portrays the romance in an idealized fashion. The movie believes two people can be brought together by music. I get the impression that Baby sees something of his mother in Debora- a memory of a happier time when he felt protected. Debora and Darling are notably the two major female characters in the film and they are deliberately contrasted. Darling isn't quite a femme fatale but she's certainly a more dangerous and sexual figure than Debora- who projects a virginal innocence. And while Gonzalez is younger than James, Darling does come across as older and seasoned woman.

While Baby may see his mother in Debora, fatherhood an important aspect of this film. I mentioned that Doc is a twisted version of a father figure; but the man Baby views as a father in the film is foster father, Joe (C.J. Jones), who is deaf and whom Baby looks after, being a father of sorts to Joe. This relationship is perhaps the most touching in the film and helps make Baby a more sympathetic character. 

While the movie is using well-worn genre tropes, it also manages to subvert expectations- particularly regarding certain characters. Bats is killed before the third act even though he was being built up as possibly the major antagonist of the film. It's actually Buddy who becomes the villain in the finale of the film. We understand Buddy's motivations- Darling is killed by the police after Baby intentionally ruining the heist. We see that Buddy and  Darling's love was as or even more genuine than Baby and Debora's. Unlike other noir heroes- Baby lives at the end of the film- but the film doesn't escape tragedy if you look at the film from Buddy's point of view. This makes ending's romanticized reunion of Baby and Debora- after Baby gets out of prison- ironic considering the fact Baby is partly responsible the death of a man's wife.

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Hamm- who became famous for his portrayal of Don Draper on the TV show Mad Men- has in his film roles avoided Draper-esque characters. Instead he's played the good-looking doofus (Bridesmaids), rugged detective (The Town), and a doctor who specializes in lobotomies (Sucker Punch). Hamm's smooth grizzled-ness makes Buddy a distinct personality and a character who could likely carry his own movie.

I do want to talk about Elgort's casting in the role of Baby. Elgort first came to audiences' attention with his role in the teen romance The Fault in Our Stars alongside Shailene Woodley, whom he also co-starred with in the Divergent franchise. His casting as a slick getaway driver would appear to be a case of miscasting. But it ends up working due to how Elgort's image as an actor in Young Adult-orientated films offers a humorous contrast to the noir archetype he's playing; at the same Elgort's offbeat stoicism makes him believable as this odd but cool getaway driver. The opening scene establishes the relationship between Baby and his music, how he grooves to it even as a dangerous heist is occurring. 

I don't know where I'd rank Baby Driver in the Wright Pantheon, particularly since I still need to re-watch most of his work- but it clearly shows a director high on the joy of making movies and pushing himself as an artist, which makes what he'll do next always very exciting.