The Jungle Books

Comparing the original and the remake…

This week I’m doing things a bit differently. I’m going to look at a recent remake of a classic film and compare both films strengths and weaknesses. If you guys like it, I may do this again with other remakes at some point. Since I reviewed a horror action film last week, I thought I’d look at something lighter hearted and more innocent this time, and so I’ve chosen to look at the remake of the Jungle Book (based on the novel by Rudyard Kipling). The original was of course a film I watched and enjoyed a lot as a child, and it was interesting to see the story from a live action style. Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man and Chef, was the director for this film, and for the most part he adapts the story and characters in a new and interesting way. Unlike many modern live action Disney remakes, this film does quite a few things differently.

I have to say that although the 1967 film is close to my heart, objectively it’s one of the worse Disney animated films. The story is very bare, the pacing is terribly slow and the animation is lazy; they re-use so many shots that you could make a drinking game out of them. The main saving grace is the humour and the music. The film is more like a series of loosely connected scenes which serve as an excuse for songs and animal antics, but for a young kid, that’s all you need. The songs are great, especially King Louie’s “I want to be like you”. It’s also a very funny film, helped by an easy-going tone that keeps you from taking the plot too seriously. However, as an adult watching the film in 2017, I can’t enjoy it on the same level. It’s quite boring in places, and for an animated movie set in the jungle, the colour is very bland and washed out.

Image result for the jungle book 1967

The 2016 film takes the core plot and characters of the first film and expands them. Now Shere Khan has a backstory, a reason to fear fire and hate Mowgli. Now Mowgli has a more developed and nuanced character. This film is definitely a more serious affair. The tone is darker and less simple, the biggest conflict of the film is whether or not Shere Khan is right about Mowgli being a danger simply by using tools to survive. The ending of the film, in which Mowgli uses fire against Khan, but shows that he can be a danger to the animals in the process, is quite deep for a children’s film. In short, there is actually a plot this time.

The film is paced better, keeping Mowgli’s journey more focused. Although this film is quite long, there is never a moment that feels as though we are killing time, unlike the original film. There are homages to the original; Favreau keeps two of the best songs, although not as well sung by Bill Murray and Christopher Walken. If anything, these moments of song and levity seem to jar with the rest of the film. There are no other singing characters, and the stakes are much more real, so it feels weird for the characters to break into song only occasionally. Visually this film is far superior to the animated version. The CGI is breath-taking, and it is genuinely hard to tell what is real set and what is a CG background. It is amazing to me that we can use animation to render such photo realistic animals, fur and all. The characters are realistic, yet still loosely based around the features of the actor playing them. The colour in this is also rich and varied.

Image result for the jungle book

A key difference between the two films is scale. The Jungle Book 2016 is a deeper story, with more epic backgrounds, detailed characters and complex motives. Set against a simple animated musical from the 60’s it’s not difficult to pick a favourite. That isn’t to say the first one is a bad film, it’s just more shallow and smaller scale. They were limited by technology at the time so it’s no surprise they didn’t try to make realistic animals, nor that they went for a comedic musical. After all, the same style of animated films had made Disney a family success for years. However, these limitations are very noticeable, and they make the film feel quite small. The 2016 film has stunning CG locations which capture the imagination. Its not hard to picture yourself in ancient India, deep in the jungle.

Performance wise I would say the two films are equal. While the actors in the new film may not sing well, they bring these animals to life very well. Ben Kingsley is kind and authoritative as Bagheera and Bill Murray is both extremely chill and mildly funny as Baloo the bear. Idris Elba is terrifying as Shere Khan, his voice harsh and angry for most of the film. Neel Sethi does a decent job as Mowgli, a more rounded character and much less annoying than the original. Most of the other cast do fine, but have to short a role to be very memorable, however one character stands out among them. King Louie, played by Christopher Walken is incredible. Walken brings his strange awkward charm to the role and the motion capture of his face is bizarre. Walken brings a certain arrogance and danger to the character which was missing from the campy original. This ape is big enough and angry enough to kill Mowgli in one punch. The performances in the first film are very good except for Mowgli. In particular Phil Harris is a treat to listen to. As much as I love Bill Murray, he doesn’t have the rich deep voice of Phil Harris. English actor George Sanders played the voice of Shere Khan, and he brings a sophistication to this predator, an intelligence which contrasts well with his savage nature.

When comparing the two, it is clear that these are two very different films. Both have their strong elements, whether it be the songs, the characters or the plot, but I think that the remake may have a slight advantage. The fact is that the original version is quite a simple, bare bones films, and the way in which Jon Favreau adapted and expanded upon the film significantly improved it. On reflection I prefer the remake, even if it hasn’t got a scene as iconic as the bear necessities.

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Looking back at Blade 2

Having a look at the best Blade film…

Taking a break from recent releases, I thought I’d look at a film I very much enjoy, which I saw again recently as part of my film course. Blade 2 directed by Guillermo Del Toro is a mixed bag objectively speaking. The plot is silly and a little clichéd, the dialogue is cheesy and the acting questionable. But these elements are all flawed in an endearing, dated way, a representation of films from the early 2000’s and all that was fun about them. On top of this, the film has some excellent fight scenes with some intricate choreography, interesting cinematography and very creative creature design, which Del Toro is so famous for. The first Blade film is fun but more deeply flawed and suffers from a seriously unintimidating villain, and for the most part I prefer the sequel. The less said about Blade Trinity the better. So, I think it’s worth exploring the ups and downs of the best film in the Blade trilogy.

To start with a negative, the biggest problem with all three of these films is the script. The story is not exactly engaging; there are some interesting ideas and cool concepts, but they are wasted amongst a tonne of clichés and pacing issues. David S. Goyer wrote all three and directed Blade Trinity, a big part of why that film is so awful, but as writer he is fine. Just fine. He’s not an incompetent writer, he knows how to craft a character arc and create stakes, but he just doesn’t have enough originality. The weakest part of Blade 2 in particular is that the story is convoluted and messy. Characters motivations are unclear, twists that are supposed to be surprising are painfully obvious, and a character is even retconned back from death in the previous film. I don’t blame Del Toro, he didn’t write the script, and the direction is miles better than the first one. Goyer is simply not an interesting enough writer and given his recent contributions to the superhero genre, it’s clear he can’t hold an audience’s attention on his own. Every film written by him I’ve seen that has been at least decent has had other more talented people working on it. In the Dark Knight trilogy, he wrote with Christopher Nolan, in this film, Del Toro manages to elevate his very average script to a much more entertaining film.

On a more positive note, the film has a very unique visual design. The direction and cinematography are much improved from the first film. There are far fewer dated shots, like the sped-up footage that permeated so much of the late nineties and early 2000’s. The fights are easier to follow as a consequence, and the choreography of the fights is easily the best part of the entire film. The monster and costume design are much less boring than in the first film too. Now instead of hot topic vampires wearing fur coats or open shirts, we have a tactical squad of trained killer vampires, wearing body armour and even a chain shirt at one point. The villains aren’t human looking vampires, they are a brilliant homage to the Nosferatu style makeup of the 1920’s. They are incredibly unnerving and scary, thanks their unhinging, predator-like mouths, and feral veiny appearance. The differing costumes and visual style make this Blade much more enjoyable to look at, even when no action is happening, something that can’t be said either for the previous film are for Blade Trinity. This film, mainly thanks to the excellent costume design on the reaper vampires, feels more like a blend of horror and action than just action.

On to the performances. This film has a large cast of side characters, and as such a lot of them don’t really get a chance to shine through. For example, I was surprised to see Donnie Yen amongst the elite vampire squad, and even more surprised when he barely got two scenes in the whole film. That is a criminal waste of Donnie Yen’s talent as a martial artist; his character doesn’t even die onscreen! However, he I learned that he was the fight choreographer for the film, which does explain why it is so much better. However, there are several key characters that get just enough development, and give a good performance whilst doing so. The main villain has quite a compelling Frankenstein complex, as he is created to be a new type of more durable vampire, but goes wrong, and seeks revenge on his father for making him this way. Luke Goss is an incredibly intimidating bad guy, but I’m unsure if this is owing to his acting or the insanely good makeup and prosthetics. Either way, it’s a huge improvement on Deacon Frost from Blade 1, AKA the boring cool bad guy. Norman Reedus plays a charming techie who helps out Blade and his partner Whistler, and Reedus does such a good job it is genuinely heart breaking when he betrays them and joins the vampires. Apart from these two, the only other memorable character is Nyssa, daughter of the vampire lord, who goes through a quite compelling arch through the movie.

Leonor Varela plays her with a tough vulnerability which is easy to relate to, and as she was born a vampire, we can sympathise with her more, as she has known no other way. She forms a deeper connection to Blade, seeing him when he takes a blood serum to stave off the thirst. She sees him in a vulnerable position, and the two form mutual respect as they fight side by side. Blade even saves her life at one point. Her decision at the end to go against her father is a sign of her growing out of his shadow. Wesley Snipes as Blade is not particularly deep. He is a stoic and outside of his connection to Nyssa, he mostly serves to deliver cool lines and kick arse. He does this very well. Snipes oozes cool, he delivers even cheesy lines with a conviction that makes it work, and his martial arts background ensures he always looks like he knows what he is doing.

On the whole, this film may not be a deep or particularly nuanced story, but is has some very exciting action, excellent choreography and stunning visual and costume design. It is a blast from start to finish, and is held up by decent performances and unique direction from Guillermo Del Toro. It isn’t high art, it isn’t Oscar worthy, but it’s a fun blend of several genres, that keeps from ever being boring. It’s easy to see why many consider this to be the best Blade film.

 

Mild Assault on the Orient Express…

Kenneth Branagh’s new film seems just a little off…

I really don’t want to review this film. It gives me no joy to criticise a director I enjoy, and seeing as I was actually an extra in the film, it feels a bit like biting the hand that fed. But after finally having seen Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, I have to admit that it just doesn’t measure up to any of the previous adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novel. I don’t think the film is bad, certainly there are still many things to enjoy about it, and it’s great to have a slightly more cerebral mainstream film, rather than another bland action snooze fest. However, it falls down in many areas that previous iterations are strong in, and I found myself not drawn into the story in any meaningful sort of way. It’s a very mediocre movie.

The story is mostly faithfully adapted from the novel, and the clues, surprises and outcome are for the most part the same, but the execution is sorely lacking. The characters aren’t given enough time to leave an impact. Each one, except a few of the main characters, gets a single introductory scene and one interview with Poirot and then for the rest of the film they only really appear in group and reaction shots. This would be fine if they were side characters, but in a mystery drama, each characters history and motivations are equally important, because we don’t know who the culprit is. This means that the big reveal at the end feels less earned because we haven’t spent long enough with the characters. It’s rare that I say a film is too short, but this could really have done with about twenty minutes extra footage to flesh out the characters. We barely have enough time to figure out that these people are acting suspicious before the final scene, where most of the information is handed to us without any clues given. The problem is Branagh is handing us the solution before we had a chance to look at the puzzle properly, and so the final scene can’t help but be an anti-climax.

Visually this film is brilliant and yet tonally inconsistent. The cinematography is very nice, and it’s clear they went to great effort to make the shots unique and interesting, considering the fact that nearly the whole film takes place on the train. Some shots work better, such as the overhead shots looking down at the characters when they discover the body. The problem is that the style of shots doesn’t match the style of the film. This a murder mystery period piece, complete with sweeping vistas and smart costumes, and yet the shots are all very modern, and this can feel jarring. It would be like filming a gangster movie with mostly shaky cam, it just doesn’t fit. On the other hand, the set and costume design are impeccable. The train carriage is opulent and classic, the suits are crisp and pressed and the dresses are pretty. When I was on set the train was still being finished, and yet it felt almost like stepping back in time, looking out of the window to see fake snow on the trees. I felt like some fancy foreign dignitary as I sat in one of the cabins, eating a bag of wotsits. After a while the train itself starts to feel like a character, and even though there are only two locations in the film, it doesn’t feel stale.

Now we come to the performances, and for the most part everyone did a good job. I say good, because the lack of focus on most of the characters doesn’t really give them opportunity to shine, there are no real stand out characters, apart from maybe Tom Bateman as Bouc. He takes a relatively boring minor character and turns him into youthful schoolboy type, who is thrust into a situation he struggles to control. In fact, he gets most of the funniest lines. Daisy Ridley, who plays Mary Debenham probably gets the most screen time outside of Poirot himself, and she does perfectly fine. She at least proves here that she has range outside of Star Wars.

But now we come to the man himself. Poirot, self-styled as the “world’s greatest detective”. This performance baffles me a little. It’s very far removed from the Poirot of the books, although I must admit I haven’t read that many. This Poirot has a pointless ex love interest and severe OCD, because apparently just being observant isn’t good enough to notice clues anymore. This Poirot is an action Poirot, chasing after culprits and hitting people with his stick. While Branagh has certainly captured the sizeable ego Poirot has, he fails to capture the quiet, restrained side of his personality. It’s hard to imagine the Poirot of this film sitting down quietly to solve a mystery, or have a chat with Captain Hastings. He is too bombastic and quippy. Branagh also is far too skinny. I realise that interpretation means making a character your own, and not being defined by the description in the books, but this is a classic case of Hollywood’s need to make characters better looking. He has a full head of hair, a rather rugged moustache and he seems to not even need his cane at all. It seems as though Branagh has done all he can to turn Poirot into a Belgian Sherlock Holmes, and not the classic one, the BBC version. I think that the problem is direction. Because Branagh is directing as well as acting, there is no-one to reign in his over the top tendencies. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kenneth Branagh, both as an actor and a director. I just feel like he needs to choose which one to be. In this particular film, I think it would have been beneficial for Branagh to have produced the film and gotten in another director, to get a more three-dimensional performance out of him.

Overall, this film isn’t the worst, in fact it’s actually pretty good. Yes, the ending is an anti-climax and the characters need fleshing out. Poirot is a bit confused as a character and there is a tone issue. But the film still has a good visual style, enjoyable side characters and great art direction. I would say it is definitely the weakest adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, but if it means more Murder Mystery films and less mindless action, I’ll take it.

A Post-Mortem of the Hobbit Trilogy…

As I have yet to finish the second season of Stranger Things, I thought I would take a look at a film franchise that may soon be getting a TV reboot, The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R Tolkien is one of my absolute favourite authors. I’ve always been a huge fan of both the books and the films, and I always loved The Hobbit. In a way, I liked it more when I was younger, especially seeing as it was much more aimed towards children and easier to consume. The Lord of the Rings took effort to read, The Hobbit was short and sweet. There was more humour, a lighter tone and a sense of carefree adventure, all things a younger kid prefers. So when I heard that the book was being adapted into two films by Peter Jackson, I was extremely excited. Jackson had turned the three LOTR books into a hugely entertaining and richly detailed trilogy of films, and I had no doubt he could do the same again.

In hindsight, I may have hyped these films a bit much. In my defence, I don’t often over-hype upcoming films, but I think that everyone has that one franchise that they can’t view objectively and mine is the Tolkien series. As most would agree, The Hobbit trilogy is a deeply flawed set of films. Even Jackson has since admitted he wasn’t satisfied with how the films turned out, “I spent most of The Hobbit feeling like I was not on top of it.” On the one hand, I enjoyed each film as it came out and on the other, there are a lot of elements to the films that actually made me angry, and it wasn’t because they didn’t stick to the book.

If anything, it was that they added to the book rather than taking anything out. The main problem in my opinion was stretching the single short book into three films. Two would have been acceptable, after all they could hardly spend all that money for a stand-alone film, and there is plenty of material to fit two films, but there aren’t just two, there are three. For one book. But for all their problems, the Hobbit films are still very entertaining, so I’m going to go through a few things that work and a few that don’t.

 

Good:

Let’s begin on a positive note. The three films have a beautiful visual design. Although it can be said that the extra frames per second and the colour palette make everything seem unreal, I think it fits the tone of the original book. The novel is light and comedic, the story isn’t a particularly deep one, and so a sillier costume and set design fits in well, and a brighter colour scheme suits the setting, in the golden age of Middle Earth before the return of Sauron. While this doesn’t always match the tone presented by what is going on onscreen, it does reflect the original style and so I view it as a good thing.

Bad:

There is no getting around the amount of padding in these films. For instance, two large subplots have been crowbarred in to give enough story to reach three films, Gandalf going to Dol Guldur and Kili and Tauriel falling in love. So many superfluous scenes are slipped in to justify the length. There is even a completely pointless scene in Bree, which only serves to remind the viewer of information we already knew from earlier. However, some scenes have been cut from the novel, which could have been better padding than the new fake characters like Tauriel (Oh we’ll get to her). There is an entire sequence where Bilbo meets the eagles king and we learn why they fly favours for Gandalf and Jackson didn’t see fit to include it. It’s actually one of my favourite scenes from the book, but apparently it isn’t as important as a terrible romantic subplot.

Good:

All of the casting is inspired in these films. Every actor suits his role to a tee, and none more so than Martin Freeman. He gets the mannerisms and personality of Bilbo absolutely spot on and it is a joy to watch him grow as a character through the story. Another great character is Bofur, who forms a close bond with Bilbo, and is very charming owing to James Nesbitt’s natural charisma. Ian McKellen returns to Gandalf with ease and grandeur, and Richard Armitage is a great choice for the brooding and troubled Thorin. My only qualm is that he doesn’t capture the greed of Thorin very well, passing it off as a sickness and not an actual character flaw. I loved Lee Pace as Thranduil, haughty and unfeeling after centuries of loss. Almost all the characters are played superbly by the cast, and this elevates the films greatly. All except Alfrid.

Bad:

The characters Jackson created for the film suck, so much. I wasn’t that angry about him adding in new characters, there are too few women in the Hobbit, and so adding a new female elf character fitted into the Mirkwood scenes. But then Tauriel turned out to be a love interest to one of the dwarves, Kili. Why? Couldn’t we just have a badass female character with her own hopes and personality? Why does every film feel the need to add a romance plot? It takes away a chance of her developing her own identity and actually ruins the relationship between Legolas and Gimli in the Lord of the Rings, because it turns out, they weren’t the first elf and dwarf to become friends. But Tauriel is nothing compared to Alfrid. This character is a painfully unfunny comic relief side character, which is fine in small doses, but in the Battle of the Five Armies, they give him a ridiculous amount of screen time. I don’t mind a side character not being funny for five minutes. I do mind a side character not being funny for a good thirty minutes and wasting my time.

Good:

This is a back handed compliment really, but I think Jackson did a smashing job, considering the pressure he was under. He had to take over from Guillermo Del Toro late into production, meaning he was constantly playing catch up, with no real creative vision and no time to form one. The level of work and stress eventually led to him becoming ill and needing to take a break. The script was being written as they shot the film, because they were simply not given enough time to refine it. So the fact that I still enjoy these films at all is nothing short of a miracle.

Bad:

The films keep trying to remind us of Lord of the Rings. The problem is that this trilogy wants to be both the light-hearted children’s book, and the gritty dark Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it can’t choose one or the other. The tone is all over the place, in part because it feels like two different movies. One is the adventure with Bilbo, which remains fun and engaging, and the other is a weird fanfiction style prequel to Lord of the Rings, starring Gandalf and Legolas. One of these films is significantly less fun, can you guess which?

 

Overall, these films are not terrible. They are entertaining and fun, and kids will certainly love them. But I can’t deny it is a shame how much potential is squandered for the sake of padding out the story and trying desperately to connect them to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. I can’t help by wonder what Guillermo Del Toro’s Hobbit would have looked like. It would at least have been more memorable. Oh well, now to see if the reboot messes up.

Thor Ragnarok: Thor is funny now…

Taika Waititi brings humour and warmth to Marvel’s most boring character…

Apologies, this review is a little late, and I’ve not been very active for the past two weeks! In my defence, I’m lazy, and I had two pieces of coursework to finish, but anyway lets continue with the review.

I recently saw Thor Ragnarok and I feel compelled to talk about it here, because it is one of the best Marvel films I’ve seen in quite a while. I should mention that I’m not a subjective source for this, as I’ve been looking forward to this film ever since I found out Taika Waititi was directing. For those who don’t know, Waititi is a director and comedian from New Zealand, who has directed some of my favourite films, such as What We Do in the Shadows. His style of comedy and writing are extremely entertaining and so I had high hopes for Thor Ragnarok. Going into this movie, my biggest concern was that the studio had let Waititi do what he wanted, as Marvel have been known to get in the way of great directors’ creative vision; look at what happened to Edgar Wright. Fortunately, this film carries a lot of Waititi’s unique style and tone, and it is a joy to watch. Spoilers from hereon in.

The two previous Thor films have been less than amazing. They certainly weren’t bad films, they had competent directors and good cinematography. The acting was mostly fine, great in the case of Anthony Hopkins. Nonetheless, the first Thor is not very memorable. The story feels very by the numbers and it felt more like a film we needed to watch to get to the avengers, rather than a film I actually wanted to see. Then came Thor: The Dark World. I can think of no film in the Marvel roster that feels more like a waste of time. The villain is underdeveloped, none of the characters arcs feel fleshed out, and it has little to no impact on any future films. This one, you can skip. But now we come to the newest entry, and let me tell you, this film makes me wish that Taika Waititi had directed all three films and not just this one.

The first thing that strikes me about this film is the colour. The costume and visual design are much less restrained than in the previous films and I for one am relieved. The tone of the Thor films has always been silly. When you have a story about mythical Gods who join a superhero team, you need to keep your tongue firmly in your cheek, but the previous two films toned down the costumes, making it seem more like a generic fantasy film. Ragnarok embraces the ridiculousness in the series and runs with it. Want a white armoured Valkyrie with face paint and a dragon tooth sword? You got it. Want the hulk to be wearing gladiator armour made from scrap? You got it! Want Hela to wear a giant elk style headdress? You get the picture. The costume department clearly had a lot of fun, and the array of colours and styles is a visual feast.

The story has massively improved on the previous films too. This time around, Thor seems to have a proper story arc, and thanks to Waititi’s direction he is allowed to be funny. Chris Hemsworth has fantastic comic timing and it is a pleasure to see him finally apply this to Thor. Not that the character has changed, rather his exposure to earth has made him less uptight and naïve. Clearly allowing the cast to improvise much more has helped enormously. Each major character has a journey, but this is Thor’s story, and he finally feels like he has the focus. The removal of his hammer forces him to grow without it, and the destruction of Asgard feels like breath of fresh air, getting rid of all the stodgy tradition of the other films. It was also a very bold narrative decision, almost like killing off a character. This will force change in the MCU, which is always a good thing. The worst part of the MCU is when the films start to stagnate. The tone is also consistently funny, in fact often when a serious moment rears its head, the moment is interrupted. The best example of this is late in the film, when Bruce Banner prepares to change into the hulk. The moment is set up to be similar to a scene in the avengers when Banner transforms just in time to punch a huge monster. However in this film, he jumps out of a ship, and splats on the rainbow bridge. It takes a few moments before he actually transforms, but the way in which this dramatic moment is deflated is side-splitting.

The actors give brilliant performances, particularly Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, a slave owner who doesn’t like using the word slave. His performance reminds me strongly of Bill Lumbergh from Office Space oddly enough. Hemsworth is the best he’s ever been as Thor this time round, and Loki played by Tom Hiddleston is entertainingly indignant. Cate Blanchett as Hela is suitably intimidating, although not much is done with her character considering she is the elder sister of Thor. Tessa Thompson is great as Valkyrie, showing a tough exterior and hurt, vulnerable inner. Her drunken introduction is incredibly funny, and yet her badass moments are some of the highlights of the film, as she fights with no extra powers, just great skill. Two of the best characters are the Hulk, played by Mark Ruffalo, and Korg the rock monster played by Waititi himself. Hulk finally has dialogue, and it is great to get his perspective. He is selfish and angry, sure, but then he has reason to be. After being hounded and hated on Earth he finally finds a place to accepted and he loves being champion. You can hardly blame him for not wanting to leave. Ruffalo does a great job performing the motion capture, and an equally great job performing a very confused Bruce Banner. But the best character is the softly spoken rock creature Korg, who is a standout character with some of the best lines. Waititi demonstrates once again how good he is at playing characters against their stereotypes. In What We Do in the Shadows he was a kind-hearted OCD vampire, and in this he is a polite and calm revolutionary.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the things I love about this film, the dialogue, the inversions of previous scenes from the avengers, such as when the hulk smashes Thor into the ground and Loki shouts out “You see how it feels?”. However I’m very conscious that this is turning into quite a long review, so I’m going to finish by saying that Thor Ragnarok is the most fun I’ve had in a Marvel movie in several years, and I hope that Marvel let Waititi direct a tonne more Thor films, because I will be the first to buy a ticket for each one.

 

Blade Runner 2049…

Blade Runner 2049, the best film of 2017 that no-one saw…

It saddens to admit it, but I have to eat humble pie. I had quite a few reservations about the planned sequel to Blade Runner ever since I heard the news. The original is one those classic films which has had such a huge impact on popular culture, that it’s difficult to remember that when it came out, it was neither well received or commercially successful. I can understand; it’s a film that demands several viewings to really form a strong opinion, but it is a film that’s close to my heart. I felt protective, even defensive about the whole idea. But now that I have seen it I can confidently say that it one of the best films coming out this year, and probably for quite a few years. It’s a masterpiece of editing and directing, with some fantastic performances and bold story choices. Let’s look a little deeper.

The first thing that needs to be addressed are the visual elements. Denis Villeneuve does a stellar job recapturing the intense composition of the original film whilst still making it his own. The frequent use of wide shots to establish setting and linger on the huge buildings that dwarf the main characters is still there, but Denis puts the characters into new settings as often, meaning that the film doesn’t just feel like a copy paste job. And Villeneuve also takes care to not overuse this tribute, for example in the final climax. The scene takes place in a dark car slowly falling underwater. This claustrophobic setting creates a tense mood and the churning seawater effectively mirrors the extreme emotion of the scene. I’d go as far as to say that in some respects, Villeneuve has surpassed the cinematography of the original, although I still prefer the set and costume design from the first.

For instance, the way in which the hologram Joi, played by Ana de Armas, interacts with her surroundings is astounding. Most film holograms look normal for the most part and stand without touching anything so as not to spoil the illusion, such as Rimmer from Red Dwarf. Not so with Joi; she frequently walks through and inside the other characters, and her head can suddenly sprout through another character’s head without warning. The way in particular the rain hits her body and causes see-through patches is incredible to watch. It’s a laudable achievement of both cinematography and digital effects and all those who worked on it should be very proud.

As to story, Blade Runner 2049 has proven me very wrong. I was convinced that the film would suffer from sequel-itis and try to redo the same plot elements and themes from the first film. However, while there are shared themes and moments the story goes in a very different direction and has some genuine surprises that I didn’t see coming. My other big fear about the story was that the writers would place too much importance on Deckard and Officer K, the protagonist played by Ryan Gosling. I’m about to discuss spoilers now, so if you haven’t seen it, skip to the last paragraph for the summary! When K discovers the bones of a replicant that somehow gave birth to a child, I began to worry, thinking that they were making K into a chosen one archetype, a special snowflake. When he was revealed as the child, I almost groaned with disappointment, so imagine my surprise when the twist was untwisted in the last third of the film. The leader of the replicant resistance reveals that Deckard and Rachels child was in fact a girl, and that K is just a normal replicant. This revelation comes after K has lost Joi, and this revelation destroys him. The double twist took me completely by surprise and was a brilliant inversion the usual cliché, even if the dialogue was a little on the nose, “Oh…you thought it was you?”. Well done writers, you had me there.

So, the story is original and while paying homage to the first film, finds its own stride, and the visuals and cinematography are fantastic, but what about actors? Apart from a slightly wooden performance from the resistance leader Freysa, played by Hiam Abbass, most of the actors do a splendid job. Ryan Gosling was engaging as the desperate and downtrodden Officer K, and Jared Leto almost redeemed himself for Suicide Squad, proving that he can be good given a decent director. He plays Niander Wallace, an intense blind businessman desperate to expand his accomplishments by breeding replicants together. The highlight roles for me however, were Harrison Ford as Deckard and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv.

Ford returns to the role with a new feel. Whereas the Deckard of the first film was jaded and numb from his work as a Blade Runner, this Deckard has learned to treat replicants no differently. He doesn’t even care if his dog is real or not. Ford gives him a wealth of sadness and pain from years of isolation and longing for his long dead Rachel. In particular, the scene in which Wallace offers Deckard a newly made Rachel is incredible. Ford brings a nuanced and restrained performance, hinting at the depth of feeling Deckard is trying to push down. This Deckard even shows concern for an injured K, despite knowing he is a replicant. Clearly, he has been on a journey since the first film.

But for me the most stand out actor is Sylvia Hoeks. She plays Wallace’s right hand, a replicant called Luv who is a strange mixture of charm, vulnerability and brutal cruelty. As a servant to a callous businessman with no regard for replicant life, she’s clearly learned to be the strongest, most useful she can, desperate to survive, not be disposed of. She takes pride in being “the best” and as such is violent and domineering to replicant and human alike, right up until her savage fight in the water with K, which she nearly wins. And yet she can be civil and charming, almost insightful. When we first meet her, I assumed she would be the Rachel parallel, as she has similar costuming and is in the same type of job. She flirts with K, and is nothing but helpful. Even then, we get a hint of her vicious nature when she uses her brute strength to open a broken door, telling us that she’s not above getting her hands dirty. And when Wallace kills a newly born replicant in front of her, she cries. She’s not without empathy, but knows that in her position, she cannot show weakness; she must be the best. Her death then, is almost tragic.

Overall, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterfully made film, with many elements that improve upon the original, and from an objective point of view, it’s a more evenly paced and structured story, which would suggest it’s better. But for me, nothing is one hundred percent subjective, and the film doesn’t make me feel as strongly as Blade Runner. There is no scene in the new film which quite reaches the level of poetry of the tears in the rain speech, or the first meeting of Deckard and Rachel. There are many great moments, but I don’t think there are any iconic moments. People probably won’t be quoting this in thirty years. Which is fine, Denis Villeneuve doesn’t need that to make a great film, and I respect him more for not trying to replicate those moments. Scenes such as that are more happy flukes. So from a non-biased viewpoint, Blade Runner 2049 is a better made movie, but I personally still prefer the first film. And if you haven’t already, please go see it in the cinema, it is a crime that it hasn’t been a box office success. If we don’t buy films like these, then we won’t get them anymore. Or better yet, watch both!

Rick and Morty’s Toxic Fan-base…

The problem with fan-bases…

This week I thought I would stray away from a particular format, and tackle a topic that has bothered me for quite a while about films and TV, the people who watch them. In case this entire blog isn’t evidence enough, I watch a lot of both, and of course I would define myself as a fan of many franchises, particularly television. For the most part, a fandom is a good thing; a group of grateful people showing appreciation for a piece of media that has brought them a lot of joy. However, I’ve encountered another sort of fan over the course of my viewership; the toxic fan.

Whilst most fans are lovely people who sincerely enjoy something just for its merits and are thrilled when more people watch the thing they enjoy, there are those who feel entitled to be the only ones watching. These toxic fans delight in exclusivity and much like the traditional image of a hipster, can’t stand anyone else knowing about the thing they love, as it diminishes their own importance. Never mind that lots of people have discovered something they enjoy, never mind that the creators will now get more money and be able to make their product better, no it’s all about you. A good example of a fanbase that has been tainted by a toxic minority is the Rick and Morty fans.

For those few of you who haven’t heard, Rick and Morty started off as a parody of Back to the Future before evolving into a biting satire and wickedly funny sitcom, created by Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland. It straddles the line between being crass and silly and yet clever and nihilistic. I resisted watching it for a long time, partly because of the huge pressure from friends to start watching it, and when I finally did, I found it was a hugely fun series. Then I noticed that some the throwaway silly jokes, such as Rick’s pointless catchphrases kept getting latched onto by fans. But no big deal, right? So what if some people like to repeat stupid phrases on the internet, why does it matter? I’m glad you asked. I bring it up to illustrate a lack of understanding of the joke. The catchphrases keep changing to mock the idea of a character having a single phrase to hook viewers. It’s not a sincere phrase, yet it is taken as such, and this creates problems, because it shows a blind emulation of things in the show without understanding them.

Recently, the show made a joke about Rick being motivated only at getting McDonalds Szechuan dipping sauce, which was a temporary promotional item for the film Mulan. The joke is that we don’t know Rick’s true motivation and never will, so it could be the sauce for all we know. However, this spawned a desperation amongst fans to get hold of this sauce, to emulate their beloved Rick. This was fuelled by McDonalds cashing in on the free publicity and selling the sauce in a limited run last week. The problem was that the fans were too many and McDonalds couldn’t meet the demand, leading to actual riots. Over sauce. Sauce which can be bought in Asda or Walmart by the way. The problem is clear, a need to try and be Rick. The character of Rick is intentionally a horrible person. He’s grumpy arrogant, nihilistic and selfish and the comedy arrives from his complete lack of normal social restrictions, thanks to his overwhelming intellect. The character is flawed and interesting, and leave it to a few desperate fans to completely miss the point. A small vocal minority of fans think that because the show has clever writing, only very smart people can truly appreciate it. Never mind all the lowbrow fart jokes and visual gags that make it accessible to almost everyone. Never mind the fact that a lot of people love it, only true genii can understand this 20-minute cartoon.

I don’t say this to disparage the series, if anything its part of what I love about it. Its clever and yet has something for everyone. But to suggest that the show is off limits, to have the arrogance to actually create a secret Facebook group for clever people who truly “get” the show (yes this really happened) is very toxic. It creates an exclusive atmosphere which turns off newcomers to the show, which could ironically hurt the very show you claim to love. People shouldn’t try to be emulating Rick. The point is that we aren’t him. We are more likely Jerry, or Morty, the normal people in the show, and it should be clear that someone who is willing to commit massive genocide when drunk, isn’t meant to be a role model. However, the toxicity of the fan-base also applies to bigots of course. When some the third season episodes didn’t quite meet expectations, sexist fans immediately blamed the new female writers on the show and started harassing them online, despite the fact that each episode is collaboratively written. This immediate assumption that the smelly girls have dirtied your treasured TV show is as immature and possessive as it is pathetic. And don’t get me wrong, the majority of Rick and Morty fans are fine humans beings, but it’s always the loud minority which spoils things for the rest of us. In Rick and Morty’s case the minority has evolved from slightly annoying, to dangerously toxic, and unlike in the show, we should consider cutting our toxic side loose. These immature, misogynistic, whiny babies are giving the show and other fans a bad name, and I know I speak for all of us when I tell those who riot over sauce or harass women for daring to write on a TV show, to grow up, and just like like a TV show for being good. Is that too much to ask?

Making a Scene: Blade Runner

Looking at a scene from one of the best Sci-fi noir films of all time…

As I’ve just started my final year at university, I haven’t managed to get out and see a new film in a while, so this week is going to carry on with a segment I introduced a while ago: making a scene. I’m going to analyse a scene from one of my favourite noir films and ask the question; what makes it stay with me? Since the new Blade Runner 2049 film will be coming out this week, and everyone is either very excited or very worried about whether or not it will live up to the original, I thought I’d take a look at a single scene from Blade Runner and examine what makes it so iconic.

It’s tough to look at a film like Blade Runner without a certain amount of bias. It’s one of those films which has a passionate cult following and many film geeks, myself included will wax lyrical about why it’s such a masterpiece. It’s had a huge impact on popular culture, and film-making in general. To separate the impact of the film from the actual objective quality is therefore a tricky process. If I wrench myself away from my bias I have to admit that the film does have a number of problems. It is a masterpiece, but a flawed one. One of the flaws is that the pacing does drag a bit. Like a typical contemplative noir Blade Runner is a slow film, it takes an hour for Deckard to even find his first replicant, and this can hurt the story. With repeat viewings you can get used to the pace and immerse in the world, but on the first watch it’s hard to ignore. A big part of why this ceases to be a problem on multiple viewings is that we tend to remember the iconic scenes. These stick in our head long after we forget the rest of the film, and so it’s easier to get through the movie, knowing our favourite parts are coming up.

There are several evocative scenes in Blade Runner, such as the “tears in rain” speech at the end of the film (arguably one of the most beautiful speeches in cinema history), but one stands out to me more than the others for several reasons. It’s the scene in which Deckard first meets Rachel at the Tyrell building. I remember the first time I saw this, it gave me shivers down my spine. The soft music, expert lighting and exquisite sound design worked hand in hand with nuanced acting from Harrison Ford and Sean Young. The scene is oddly soothing and yet sets up a lot of the major themes going into the rest of the film. The images presented are also timeless and iconic, Rachel smoking in darkness, the close-up of her eye, even the bright pyramids in the background. Matte paintings never seemed so real.

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The main reason this scene is so visually evocative is the way light is used. The huge room makes the heavy shadows seem endless, dwarfing the characters and the light coming from the evening outside sets a golden glow on points in the room creating strong contrast. This all gives the scene an ethereal, almost unreal atmosphere, which mirrors the replicants and their “gifted” memories. The characters often walk out of shadow into the light, such as when Tyrell enters the room. Their faces are illuminated similar to a stage spotlight. When Rachel sits down to take the Voight-kampff test, her cigarette smoke is lit up and bathes her face, creating a protective mask, and hinting at her true nature. She is disconnected from the regular humans. Having her face covered in darkness, lit only from behind bring her bright eyes into focus and creates a second “mask”. We see her as Deckard sees her, beautiful and mysterious. Sean Young gives a spectacular performance here, a career highlight, and the way she uses half smiles and slight tilts of the head to indicate her curiosity and hidden insecurity is masterful. This is unquestionably her scene.

But the light is only part of what makes the scene come alive. There is also the set design, which utilises huge architecture and classic antiquity style furniture, making the chamber seem more at home in a fantastical palace than a corporate office. This sets the otherworldly atmosphere, making the wealthy elite seem as though they live on a different planet altogether. The size and style contrasts with the grimy neon streets and Deckard’s scruffy appearance, putting the character on the back foot from the first. The tall pillars and pyramids remind us of temples and empires, creating parallels to the pharaohs and their slaves and the Tyrell corporation and their replicants.

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Another aspect of this scene which cements it as one of my personal favourites is the music and sound design. I love the way the echo is used to add to that almost mystical atmosphere, and the diegetic sound of the water blends with the music, creating a soothing rhythm which I sometimes use to help me sleep. This music might as well be Rachels theme; it plays as she enters and swells as she speaks. It’s choral and a little eerie at the same time, and this helps to emphasise the privilege afforded at Tyrell and the disconnection from what is going on in the streets, where the music is more instrumental and mournful. The music in Blade Runner is an echo of the characters and their world, and it serves to illustrate the differences, and evoke an atmosphere of inevitability. This scene in particular has beautiful music which stays with you long after the scene is over.

This scene is a perfect example of many of the best things about Blade Runner, the music, set design, acting and lighting. But one of the main reasons I chose this scene over the death of Roy Batty is that this moment is a quieter, more subtle part of the film. It’s a prelude to where the rest of the plot is going and a set up to the themes and arc of the story. In setting up the idea of a replicant nearly passing the test, and using Rachel to demonstrate the blurred lines between man and machine, the rest of the story falls into place with ease. Deckard’s journey is set. It’s a scene which I admire all the more, because setting up story elements is often the hardest part to do well. Watch carefully the next time you see Blade Runner, and hopefully you’ll appreciate this scene in a new light.

 

Career Spotlight: Jonathan Pryce

Looking back at the career of a great English actor…

Now that I’ve written quite a bit on this blog, I’ve gotten tired of doing film reviews, especially seeing as I’ve mostly been reviewing things I like. So, in the name of diversity I thought it would a be a welcome change of pace to introduce a new segment. This is a section which will look at prolific actors and actresses that have been in a lot of films and television, but not usually as the starring role. They are brilliantly talented but often play side characters or supporting roles, so you may well recognise them, but not know their names. I think it’s high time these people got a bit more appreciation, so here goes…

To begin this occasional segment, I thought I would look at the long career of Jonathon Pryce, an English actor most famous for being a bond villain and Governor Swan from Pirates of the Caribbean. I’m going to go over some of the highlights of his filmography, and how well I think he does in the various roles. Obviously, I don’t intend to look at every film he has been in, and so I’m going to pick four films from various points in his filmography which represent the range of his ability. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the acting career of that guy you probably sort-of know from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Jonathon Pryce has been active since the mid 70’s in both theatre and films. From ’76 to ’83 he had supporting roles for four feature films, three of which were relatively small independent projects. It wasn’t until 1983 that he got his first starring role in a feature film for Something Wicked this Way Comes, based on the book of the same name by Ray Bradbury. This is a strange film, with some great atmosphere but big pacing problems and some questionable child actors. However, I’m not reviewing the film, I’m only interested in Pryce’s performance. He plays the sinister Mr Dark, who despite not having a very subtle name, is a deliciously cruel character and a highlight of the film. Pryce gives him just the right level of enjoyment in what he is doing, without making him cartoonish or silly. He has oodles of charm and charisma, and yet you never forget he is the villain; he’s intimidating without needing bravado.

The character of Dark is a skilled manipulator, using people’s desires against them, and Pryce is excellent at playing the tempter, seeming reasonable, yet malevolent. For example, there is a brilliant scene late into the movie in which Dark offers Charlie Holloway, the main character’s father, to make him young again. The way in which Pryce paces his speech, and the intensity of his words is riveting. This is the first example of how much presence and authority Pryce can command with just his voice and his eyes. His intense stare, almost unhinged looking and his powerful, crisp voice both give his characters weight and gravitas. We can’t help but pay rapt attention whenever he is on screen. In my opinion, it is worth seeing this film just to get a clear example of how good Jonathon Pryce is at playing the villain.

Just two years later, however we get a very different character for Pryce to portray. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is, according to Pryce himself, a personal career highlight. It showcases his talent for a restrained performance. Even in his most silly roles, Pryce knows just how to sell his character, by keeping his performance under tight control. He knows exactly when to let loose and when to rein it in, and this creates a, if not completely realistic, certainly believable character. In particular in a film as bizarre and ridiculous as one made by Gilliam, Pryce shines as the put-upon straight man, making the outrageous world he lives in seem stranger by contrast. Brazil is such as interesting and funny film that I may come back to it at some point, but for now let’s focus on Pryce’s role.

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As Sam Lowry, he is swept up in an accidental conspiracy leading to him running from an Orwellian government. The key difference between a film like this and 1984, is that the evil government is more incompetent and overrun by bureaucracy than malice. In fact, the inciting incident of the film is a misfiling leading to the wrong person being arrested for terrorism. Within this incompetent and infuriating world, the character of Lowry stands out because he is normal. Pryce gives him enough frustration at the world around him, enough longing to be elsewhere so that the audience can easily empathise. We’ve all been in a less severe version of his situation, held up by paperwork or screwed over by a mistake. It’s strange to see Pryce play the hero of a story, but as the film is about a struggle against overwhelming red tape, it makes sense that a less well known, or traditionally good-looking actor would fit the role better. He brings his quiet intensity to Lowry, making him desperate to live out his daydream of excitement and romance. I can’t say much more without spoiling this film, and believe me, it’s one you want to watch without spoilers. Let’s move on.

The penultimate film I’m going to look at is one much later in Pryce’s filmography, from 2003. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl Jonathon plays Governor Swan, Elisabeth’s ambitious father. This film gives a good example of his comedic chops, as he plays a more humorous character, but not quite as over the top as Jack Sparrow. While Johnny Depp gives a thoroughly entertaining go as the lead, his performance is a little too disconnected from reality, and sometimes that can detract from the stakes. Pryce reacts to the world around him in a naturalistic way, which means that when the world around him is ludicrous and fantastical, it produces a realistic, and often hilarious reaction. For most of the film, Pryce plays governor Swan as a concerned father, who wishes her wellbeing but also wants her to choose the life he plans for her. He portrays this with genuine warmth and feeling, but the best parts of his role are when he comes into contact with the supernatural.

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Case in point, when he is trapped on a ship being invaded by Zombie pirates, he does the very human thing and locks himself in the cabin, accidentally cutting off a pirate’s hand, which then carries on moving on its own. The scene is very funny mostly because of Pryce’s great comic timing, but also his very real, human reaction. Upon realising the hand is still alive, he almost vomits, and his struggle to fight this one hand, whilst outside a battle against zombie pirate’s rages, is a great contrast. Pryce’s expression when he traps the hand in a cabinet, and the cabinet starts shuddering is priceless (I apologise for the pun, I couldn’t resist). The crowning moment is when he walks outside after the curse has been lifted and joyfully squares up to the already defeated pirates. In a film filled with quirky pirates and undead skeleton people, it’s nice to contrast it with some normal characters and Pryce can do both types very well.

So far, we’ve seen Pryce as the villain, the hero and the light comic relief, but I would like now to take a look at a more morally grey character Pryce has played. To complete this segment, I’m going to look at a very recent performance in Game of Thrones. In Game of Thrones, Pryce plays a religious leader called the High Sparrow. This is one the most nuanced performance I’ve seen from him and it perfectly demonstrates why he is such a talented actor. He fits so naturally into the character, it’s hard to see him as an actor. In the fifth and sixth season on Game of Thrones Pryce plays a religious leader named the High Sparrow, who rises quickly to power, and then starts to take over as the de-facto leader of King’s Landing. He is a humble seeming character, wearing only ragged robes and no shoes, and puts on a great show of helping the unfortunate. While he may or may not actually care about the plight of the poor, his real goal is to amass power, and he sees his religious followers and the poor masses as tools to complete this goal. Pryce shows a very subtle man, who presents a humble grandfatherly exterior, but reveals moments of cunning and hardness.

A perfect scene to show this is when Jaime Lannister confronts him in the Sept of Baelor. At first, the Sparrow plays the defenceless old man who just wants to see justice done. He uses humility as a weapon to disarm his enemies. When it doesn’t work on Jaime, he drops the act and lets his true character out, explicitly threatening him and demonstrating just how many are on his side. Pryce is brilliantly subtle in how he lets his facial cues and body language convey the shift in personas, as he drops the humble act. His measured and calm responses never change, but his tone alters dramatically. He starts the conversation light and kindly, and ends with a serious and completely sincere tone, safe in the knowledge that Jaime won’t kill him. Only an actor of the same calibre as Jonathan Pryce, someone like Anthony Hopkins for instance, could put that many layers into a performance, and still make it seem natural. It is a masterfully done role.

Hopefully during the course of this admittedly rather long post I’ve managed to highlight the skill in acting Jonathan Pryce possesses and how overlooked he can be. Now that I have pointed out some of his best and most interesting roles I hope that you’ll be inspired to check an actor who deserves much more attention and praise.