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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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There is a tension within the latest instalment of the Star Wars franchise. On the one hand there is the industrial behemoth and immense legacy that is Star Wars. On the other hand there is writer-director Rian Johnson, coming from a background of independent filmmaking that includes Brick and Looper. This tension creates problems and also benefits. The biggest problem is the film is overly long and, despite having the structure of a chase thriller, Johnson presents three parallel plot lines, one of which is overdone and lessens the overall tension. This narrative baggyness is partly due to the apparent need of new Star Wars films to pay homage to what has come before, as much of The Last Jedi echoes The Empire Strikes Back while its third act is reminiscent of Return of the Jedi. Competing against this homage is Johnson’s innovations, such as this film largely picking up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens and his allowance for characters to ponder their choices, whereas JJ Abrams largely had characters making decisions at hyperspeed. These innovations are also a major benefit, with new directions for this most hallowed of cinematic sagas. The mythos and history of the Force is explored in more depth than previously seen, especially in terms of the hubris and failure of the Jedi. Explosions rock the drama both internally and externally, as ships explode in true Star Wars fashion, and interpersonal strife plagues both the Resistance and the First Order. Perhaps the most ferocious battles rage within the souls of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), both trying to forge a place for themselves within a chaotic galaxy while (F)orces pull them in all directions. The overall result is mostly a creative and dramatic success, The Last Jedi delivering as a thrilling space chase of legacy and identity, with a surprisingly egalitarian subtext.

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Justice League

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After the mixed responses to Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman demonstrated that given the right level of care and attention, DC could deliver an effective superhero film both for audiences and critics. Justice League sheds the ponderousness of BVS: DOJ and avoids the jumbled storytelling of Suicide Squad, borrows plot elements from both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and presents a colourful array of characters. The new arrivals – Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – receive short shrift in the rush to squeeze everything into two hours, and would have benefitted from earlier standalone films to give them and their respective worlds more detail. The lack of balance between characters is mirrored by the imbalance between the wit of Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio’s script and the portentousness of Zack Snyder’s direction, a problem that also affected BVS: DOJ. Despite this, Justice League still manages to deliver on the promise of multiple super-powered individuals, with a sometimes dazzling display of spectacular abilities, all of which are neatly tied to character development. From Bruce Wayne’s Batman’s (Ben Affleck) array of wonderful toys (composer Danny Elfman also references his own score from 1989’s Batman) to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) reluctance to lead, Cyborg’s fear over the loss of his humanity to Aquaman’s cynicism and the Flash’s youthful exuberance, powers work as part of identity, and the appropriate use of this power is a recurring conceit of the film. Some of these potential heroes have to mature into their powers, others need to be reminded of its responsible use or restraint. Against all this, poorly-rendered (in both written and visual terms) villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is rather underpowered despite his goal of planetary conquest, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching the members of the League bounce off each other verbally and physically. Several spectacular set pieces – one with a semi-assembled League and another with them complete – deliver smackdowns of varied spectacle and visual impact, while a neat strand of humour (largely coming from Flash) adds further pep to the concoction. Justice League falls someway short of the standard set by Wonder Woman, but it is far from kryptonite for the DCEU.

Call Me By Your Name

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Call Me By Your Name is a sweet and delicate romance that makes a virtue of understatement. The film possesses the ingredients for an emotionally overwrought melodrama: the summer of 1983; an abundance of bright fashion and music; a picturesque setting in Northern Italy, complete with orchards laden with fruit (itself laden with symbolism); a teenage protagonist undergoing a sexual awakening; an array of pretty young people with a variety of tongues; constant sunlight that turns water into shimmering light; a handsome newcomer that everyone adores. Yet despite the potential for histrionics and yanking at heartstrings, director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel is a masterclass in restraint and implication. Teenage Elio (Timothée Chalamet) falls for visiting student Oliver (Armie Hammer) as his true sexuality emerges, but Elio also pursues girls seemingly by rote. Oliver’s response to Elio’s affection is by turns dismissive and receptive, the audience’s confusion mirrored by Elio’s uncertainty. Yet even in its most affecting moments, Guadagnino opts for long takes and delicate composition rather than melodrama. The film is often very funny and frequently touching in its portrayal of the discomfort of young love while also being explicit in its sexual content without resorting to lurid leering – indeed the love scenes are often amusing and affecting in their awkwardness. Despite this, Call Me By Your Name is less a comedy and more a bittersweet drama of a beautiful, encapsulated time, during which a love bloomed that was perfect because it existed only in a pristine yet contained moment.

Blade Runner 2049

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There is a key moment in Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when a character learns an important truth. The moment features two figures captured in a two-shot that silhouettes their profiles against a richly textured background. This instance encapsulates the film as a whole, as every frame is saturated with meaning, craft and beauty. Set thirty years after the events of the original film, Villeneuve’s follow up is not a sequel that we needed but it is one that fans of the original deserve, as BR2049 pays homage to the original, one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, while also staking out its own territory. Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s story of cop K (Ryan Gosling, developing his taciturn roles in Drive and Only God Forgives into something all the more eerie) searching for answers in a dystopian California builds upon the first film and explores many of the same questions about humanity and identity, what it means to be a person, what is the influence of voice, embodiment, obedience, views of self and other. Brilliantly, BR2049 takes these questions in new directions, raising issues of what constitutes procreation and the importance of digitization. Production designer Dennis Gassner and the visual effects team go beyond the huge advertisements of the first film with giant 3D projections in the Los Angeles of 2049, while interactive AI and immersive holographic environments appear throughout the film. Blade Runner 2049 therefore continues to explore the tension between what is real and what is artifice, a line that is progressively blurred and distorted. Interestingly, the film is reminiscent both of the original Blade Runner as well as more recent science fiction such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Her. The recurrence of these themes and tropes demonstrates the eternal recycling of concepts in science fiction, yet BR2049 never feels stale or like something we have seen before (even though, in a sense, we have). The central uncanny conceit operates on a narrative, thematic and stylistic level, and even in the very substance of the film.

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Roger Deakins is the true star here, his exquisite visuals spellbindingly beautiful while simultaneously laden with portent. Yet these images are themselves ephemeral, data that has no more physical substance than some of the characters in the film. The viewer’s reaction therefore mirrors the characters. Just as K gazes at holograms with a mixture of wonder and bitterness, so does the film invite awe tinged with scepticism. Some of this scepticism can spill over into criticism – the film’s length and languorous pace is not to all tastes, while aspects of the principal antagonist add little to the proceedings. It also sidelines exploration of its female characters in favour of male questing, which is a shame because the female characters often suggest intriguing alternatives. But overall, these are minor quibbles in a film that largely delivers on the promise of its predecessor, and will likely be analysed and debated for another thirty years.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

It

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It arrives laden with expectations, both for those familiar with the Stephen King novel as well as the TV miniseries. Whether viewed by fans of these earlier versions or newcomers, the key question is does Andy Muschietti’s cinematic rendering offer anything new or, indeed, effective? The answer is a ferocious YES, as It lures you into a world of growing pains, cine-literacy and major jump scares. Set in 1989, rather than the 50s of the original, the film is shot through with affection for its cast and indeed being a teenager at that time. References to Gremlins, Batman and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 pepper the film, as does the spirit of adventurous youth found in Stand By Me (also adapted from a Stephen King original). The central group of the Losers are familiar from film convention – the tough girl, the troubled leader, the token black kid, the hypochondriac, the smart mouth, the Jew, the studious fat kid – but none of these are a postmodern cipher simply there to reference other films. Rather, they all have relatable problems, often associated with their parents who range from dismissive to overbearing to abusive. There are also social issues including bullying and racism, which have the cumulative affect of an unsympathetic world in which the only thing you can count on is your friends. Therefore, the close bonds between the Losers are convincing and affecting, and their shared terror as they encounter Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is all the more involving. As Pennywise, Skarsgård is never less than unsettling and at times outright terrifying. Muschietti steadily draws the viewer in, with wide angled shots capturing the kids in menacing expanses, while Pennywise and his ominous balloons are framed in tighter shots that express his intrusion into the kids’ space. The clown’s appearances sometimes prompt gut-wrenching jumps, all the more effective because of the preceding drip feed of malevolence. Yet the strongest impression of the film is one of friendship rather than fear, our plucky heroes bonded through their mutual fear and camaraderie. It is a good film to jump at, but perhaps a better one to enjoy with friends.

Wind River

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Taylor Sheridan is a very fine writer. His previous works Sicario and Hell Or High Water beautifully captured the drama of people caught between social and historical developments. Much the same is true of Wind River, the third in Sheridan’s loose ‘border trilogy’. What the earlier films also had were very fine directors, and Sheridan proves himself less accomplished in this respect as Wind River lacks the enveloping dread that Denis Villeneuve brought to Sicario and the muscular doggedness that David MacKenzie delivered with Hell Or High Water. Sheridan handles his Native American reservation-set thriller solidly but unimaginatively, sometimes overusing dialogue to express the marginalisation and discrimination suffered by one of America’s most underprivileged demographics. Much of this rumination is delivered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a hunter and tracker with a tangential connection to the inhabitants of the Wind River reservation. After finding the body of a teenage girl in the snow, Cory assists investigating FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). The subsequent investigation between these mismatched partners is functional, if problematic as it foregrounds white characters in a story ostensibly concerned with Native Americans. Sheridan does not explore the social tensions in much depth, again resorting to telling rather than showing, as well as a rather clumsy flashback that depicts escalating events that are disturbing if rather rushed. However, when the film relies on its visuals, it succeeds admirably, as Sheridan delivers set pieces that are gripping and even shocking in their suddenness, expressing the life or death urgency of the environment. And it is in the environment that Wind River attains heights as lofty as the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains (Utah standing in for Wyoming). Cinematographer Ben Richardson lenses the landscape with awe inspiring scale, the expanses of snow and ice rendered in a splendour that leave the viewer chilled to the soul. Wind River may not offer much food for thought, but it certainly offers a feast for the eyes.

Detroit

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Escalating events are terrifying because of the loss of control, but perhaps even more so because of their innocuous beginnings. We can easily imagine ourselves in such events, especially when they are historically documented. Such is the case with Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow’s dramatisation of events at the Algiers Motel during the 1967 riots of the eponymous city. Beginning with an animated sequence that recounts racial tension alongside urban gentrification and migration during the early to mid-twentieth century, Detroit focuses on several character vectors that converge at the Algiers where events escalate to truly terrifying levels. The danger largely results from people being in the wrong place at the wrong time and, in several cases, the wrong colour. Bigelow deftly guides the audience through the events, as well as through genres including social drama, horror and courtroom. This is impressive enough, but the film’s greatest coup is to present the incidents at the Algiers as a microcosm of much larger events, as the viewer is kept aware of riots and broader tensions, but the film’s focus on this specific event expresses both the intimate and large scale powder kegs. Three central characters represent parts of the overall conflict: singer Larry (Algee Smith) – black victim; Detroit police officer Krauss (Will Poulter) – racist white authority; security guard Dismukes (John Boyega) – liminal figure of the black man in uniform. Radiating out are various other figures, tensions and events that escalate into steadily darker territory. Bigelow demonstrates her trademark immersive style, much as she did with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, often following characters with mobile tracking shots while many of the confrontation scenes are horrifically claustrophobic. The viewer may often feel that they themselves are trapped in that motel, armed cops yelling and, in some cases, doing much worse. Yet no character here is a caricature, even the ostensible villain of the piece is presented as complex and multi-faceted while the victims are not without agency. This adds to the relatability of the characters and the film’s immersive nature, for it is easy to imagine oneself in such a situation but far harder to imagine what one would do. The viewer is therefore left shaken and disturbed by the events, as indeed we should be, because equivalent events continue today, and continue to escalate.