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!

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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.

Strike hits the mark…

The new BBC detective show that lives up to the books…

Oh boy, have I been looking forward to this series. The Cormoran Strike book series have been some of the most entertaining and grounded detective stories I’ve read in a good while. The stories are rooted in realism, the characters are down to earth and believable, and the prose is fantastic, which is to be expected coming from J.K. Rowling (although she writes under the name Robert Galbraith). Having really enjoyed the books I was, of course overjoyed to hear that a TV series was being commissioned, and slightly nervous. Quite often having read the source material can get in the way of enjoying the film/TV version; I struggle to get as much fun from the Harry Potter films because the books are so much more detailed. However, a TV series can give us more detail and depth as a longer length is allowed for the story, and for a book series set in modern day London, the budget needn’t be as high. Now that I’ve seen the show, I can confirm that it is damn good!

The TV show adapts the first two books in the series, so to be consistent I’m going to review the first part of the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling as a complete story. The series, written by Ben Richards and directed by Michael Keillor serves as an introduction to the characters, but also manages to have a very gripping mystery centred around the fashion industry. As such there is a lot of set up, but it is dealt with in a very natural way (for the most part). The military background of Strike is worked naturally into the story, through the new temporary secretary Robin. As she is first meeting and working for him, we find out about his past when she does.

The only slightly clunky moments of exposition are when Strike talks to a concierge and brings up his missing leg, saying “would you like to see?”. The fact he is missing a leg probably could have been brought up a bit more subtly, rather than having the character actually point it out. Apart from a few moments like this however, the story is very naturalistic. We spend a good amount of time watching Strike try to get his life back together after a nasty breakup, camping in his office, getting a sleeping bag; in fact, the only reason he even takes the case is that he is desperate for cash.

The actual mystery is engaging and unpredictable. If I hadn’t read the books I probably wouldn’t have guessed who was the murderer and the only real problem I have is that many of the clues and interviews were cut down quite a bit from in the book. The issue with this is that it makes it harder for the audience to have a fair chance of guessing who the culprit is, meaning that we feel less rewarded when it is actually revealed. However, the story is adapted very well from Rowling by Ben Richards, and thanks the three-hour runtime, he manages to give the story room to breathe. The book has a slow pace, showing us the mundane side of detective work, whilst focusing on building character, and the Show does the same.

A downside of the show is that the cinematography didn’t particularly stand out. There were a few really nice shots but for the most part the composition was quite standard. This is a realistic show, but it could take a few notes from Sherlock, which despite its flaws is shot beautifully and takes advantage of the London setting. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it does make the show a little less interesting to look at. What helps however, is the stellar editing. The pacing is kept smooth thanks to very seamless cuts, and whoever had the idea to only show the scene directly before the murder, and then film shots of the interior of the apartment should be commended. The scene then transitions very smoothly into the exterior where a crime scene has already been set up, before we end with a shot of the body. This is a very evocative and unusual way of editing such a scene and it got me very curious to see what else they would do with it.

Finally, the performances. Tom Burke stars as the lead Cormoran Strike, and as a fan of the books, he does the character justice. He is slightly gruff and reserved, with enough hidden angst to keep us interested. He portrays a man going through a tough spot and keeping it to himself, and captures a certain casual demeanour that reflects his job as an investigator, trying not to draw attention. I particularly admire how much weight Burke has put on for the role, it adds another dimension to the character and is accurate to the books. It’s nice to have a less good looking podgy protagonist for once! Lastly, we have Robin Ellacott, played by Holliday Grainger. Grainger captures the perky optimistic Robin with aplomb, and she is a good foil to Strikes grim gruff character. The two have good chemistry, and Grainger is very good at keeping the character from being annoyingly chipper. She has a sunny, can-do attitude, but she isn’t naïve. She’s capable and fun to watch, and clearly, there’s much more about her character to explore.

So the series is an extremely enjoyable watch, even if you haven’t read the books, although if you have, you won’t be disappointed. The show is interesting, exciting and has a lot of potential. The actors give great performances, the story and pacing are superb, and it is a stellar example of how to adapt a book into a TV format. Give it a watch, and see for yourself!

Not Quite as Good as it Gets…

Looking at a film I enjoyed, but had a quite a few issues with…

Whilst perusing Netflix the other day, I was fortunate enough to come across an old rom-com from 1995 called As Good as it Gets Written and Directed by James L. Brookes. Since it starred Jack Nicholson and was about a character with OCD, which I haven’t seen in many films, I thought I would give it a try. What I discovered about this film is that it’s simultaneously really great and pretty bad. A lot of things in this film are fantastic and I really enjoy them, but there are other aspects that grate on me quite a bit, and I can’t decide which parts of the film matter more. I struggled to decide if I liked this film so much so, that I thought I would run through what it does well and what frustrates me about it.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this film was Nicholson’s performance. I have yet to see a film he has starred in where I didn’t love his character, although admittedly it is always the same character. In this he plays a cantankerous, misanthropic novelist with severe OCD and poor social skills. Nicholson brings his trademark snarky lines and bad attitude, but his portrayal of obsessive compulsive behaviour is very compelling. He manages to create a lot of sympathy whilst not playing it for laughs. What I don’t love about his character however is the racial and homophobic slurs. I know it’s a part of his character that he has to overcome and that having a flawed protagonist is more interesting, but for me it doesn’t work. The fact is that Melvin Udall is a nasty enough person to everyone around him without adding discrimination to his traits. I wouldn’t mind so much if he had a moment of character growth where he learns to overcome his prejudices, but the matter is never properly addressed. Udall simply grows to like the characters he had previously slurred. Maybe that’s enough for some, but for me it feels incomplete.

Another character who is excellent is Helen Hunt’s put-upon waitress, Carol. She is a struggling single mother, who can’t seem to find time for a love life, and can’t get good medical care for her ailing son. She serves Udall at his regular diner, and he begins to develop a respect (and later love) for her as she doesn’t take his eccentricities lying down. As Melvin says himself at one point, her character inspires him to better himself; this is a very sweet aspect of her personality. Helen Hunt does a great job portraying her strength of will and independence, as well as some very emotional moments, such as when she discovers Melvin has covered all her medical expenses. On the other hand, the character becomes very mercurial and emotionally inconsistent towards the end of the film.

Admittedly, Melvin is hard to cope with thanks to his inappropriate comments and selfish attitude, but if she doesn’t want to be with him, she shouldn’t keep agreeing to meet him. She seems unable to decide if she wants a relationship with him, and constantly gets frustrated or even angry with Melvin about his eccentricities. The problem is she doesn’t take his OCD into account enough. I may sound harsh when I say that her indecisiveness and lighting fast changes of heart are very irritating to watch. There is also a slightly creepy element to their relationship when you consider that she is a pretty 35 year old, and he is a 60 year old Jack Nicholson. There is a reason Jack is so good in the shining after all… In fact, the few scenes in which her mother interacts with Melvin are even worse, as they are clearly a similar age, making you think it would be a more appropriate romance.

Performances aside, the film has a very unpredictable story; I was unable to guess most of the plot elements, which for me is a rarity. I enjoyed watching Melvin undergo a change of character, particularly the scenes in which he takes care of his neighbour’s dog after he is hospitalised. The scenes of him slowly growing fond of the dog are hilarious and adorable, and probably enough reason to see the movie on its own. The film is very funny, I had several good belly laughs at moments, such as when Melvin snaps at a fan of his books after an increasingly horrible day. The one liners in this film are very well written, and although the writing is a little unrealistic (I’m pretty sure most people aren’t quite so melodramatic) it is a lot of fun. Greg Kinnear is very entertaining as a gay artist living next door, who struggles to be confrontational. His complicated relationship with Udall is actually more interesting and heart-warming to me than the main romance. The fact that he is a gay character who portrayed as completely normal is icing on the cake.

A visual downside of the film is that the colour is often very bright and quite odd. It detracts from the overall realistic tone, as characters wear almost comically bright colours, and shirts with two buttons done up. The colours often clash and it makes the film not much fun to look at. However, after looking through all the good things this movie has to offer, I have decided it is good after all. It has enough good things going for it that outnumber the bad elements, and at its core, it fulfils its purpose well; it is a comedy and it made me laugh. Quite a lot.

Dunkirk is the best Christopher Nolan film in years…

A return to form for Christopher Nolan…

Christopher Nolan has always been an exciting director. His films are without fail a visual treat, and his insistence on more practical effects is as refreshing as his stories are engaging. That said, as of late I have found myself growing a little cold towards Nolan’s films. That is to say, his more recent films, The Prestige and Memento are as brilliant now as they were years ago. The Dark Knight was so good that is was perhaps inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises, by virtue of coming after such a film would disappoint. After that came Interstellar, a spectacularly shot film with some great performances, and yet the story didn’t seem quite up to scratch. In particular, the fact that the film resolves itself by having the power of love overcome all just felt lazy, and no matter how you choose to phrase it that is what happened.

However, I’m happy to say that Nolan is back up to standard with Dunkirk. This is an exquisitely made war drama, that successfully showcases the confusion of conflict and the horrors that everyday people went through during the battle of Dunkirk, and although there are a few issues, overall, I thought it was a stirring experience.

First things first, the story structure. Making a war film always comes with a few problems. How do you keep your protagonist alive without making it painfully obvious that they aren’t in real danger? The solution in this case is to create a constant level of tension that only occasionally lets up. Nolan uses a pattern. The characters will manage to escape a deadly encounter, and find a sanctuary. Convinced they are safe, they and we as the audience let our guard down, and disaster will strike. This happens multiple times in the film, but rather than getting boring, it manages to keep us on our toes, wondering which characters will make it out in one piece. Hans Zimmer shines here too, he uses high pitched repetitious music to keep the tension building. Every time the music increases in pitch we grow a little more worried. Its remarkably similar to way Zimmer used high pitched music in The Dark Knight.

The film follows several different characters as they go through various fronts of the battle. Nolan does something unusual with the structure in this film. Rather than one linear narrative, we jump forward and back in time randomly depending on which character we are with, almost like Pulp Fiction. This non-linear narrative means we are not always sure when things are happening in relation to the other characters, although it becomes clearer towards the end of the film. Oddly enough this is makes the film stronger, as it creates a sense of confusion, which brings us closer to the characters. We are almost forced into their shoes, unsure of what is happening around us.

Speaking of characters, this film has quite a few to keep up with. There is an RAF pilot played by Tom Hardy, two soldiers on the beach trying to get home, played by Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles… for some reason. There is also a navy officer overseeing the disaster played by Kenneth Branagh and finally, we have an older man and his son sailing to Dunkirk, who rescues a soldier with PTSD played by Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy. All of these (yes even Harry Styles) do a fine job presenting these characters, but the stand outs to me were Mark Rylance and Fionn Whitehead. Most of the rest of the cast are good, but often don’t get enough screen time or presence to really shine (with the exception of Cillian Murphy who is always damn near perfect). Rylance does an amazing job showing the quiet patriotism this man has and his heroism in going to Dunkirk himself to pick up wounded soldiers. He represents the working men who did their bit during the war, even if they couldn’t fight themselves, and Rylance’s nuanced, yet reserved portrayal was a stand out.

The other actor who deserves a mention is Fionn Whitehead. He plays a young soldier trying desperately to get home, and one of the key aspects of his performance is his physical performance. He doesn’t have many lines in the film, but the emotion he portrays in his eyes and expressions is very genuine. The fear, desperation, and determination his situation creates is very clear on his face and I look forward to seeing him in more films in the future.

The effects as always with Christopher Nolan, were spectacular and the lack of unnecessary CG kept the realistic tone needed. However, what detracted from the tone was a complete lack of gore, which in a war film is quite noticeable. There were several points when something was exploding or on fire, and no one seemed to be hurt. One man was in the middle of a fiery explosion and he looked like he was getting a sun-burn. However, this wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, and the beautiful cinematography, especially the amazing dogfights, more than made up for it. This is an incredibly shot film with a decent story and some really emotional moments and I definitely recommend it.

First Impressions: Norsemen

Discovering a good show to binge on Netflix…

Pretty soon, I’m going to have to review something I don’t like, otherwise this blog will become a vehicle for me to bathe films and TV I like in praise. With that said, here is a show I’ve just started watching which is very good. Norsemen is a comedy series set in the Viking period in Norway, and follows the lives of several Norse Viking raiders in the town of Norheim. The series is a pastiche of several shows on at the moment, including Vikings and The Last Kingdom. In much the same way that What we do in the shadows dispels the mystique of vampires, Norsemen punctures the romantic idea of rough manly warriors, by portraying these raiders as normal people with sensitives who talk about their feelings and stumble over their words. Having the main actor be much less traditionally good-looking also pokes fun at the slim leads with eye liner and magnificent hair from Vikings.

Most of the comedy comes from these characters reacting to old fashion traditions and customs with modern sensibilities, like the warrior Arvid, who, coming home from rape and pillage, talks about feeling lonely as everyone around him marries and settles down. However, there can be downsides to this modern perspective. For example, Rufus the slave acts as though he is on a commercial trip when he arrives at the village, and constantly puts his foot in it by running his mouth, seemingly unaware that he has been taken as a slave at all. He complains and demands, and it leads to some very funny moments, but the illogical way his character acts rubs me the wrong way.

The physical comedy is another strong point, and there are several slapstick jokes that work well because they play on our expectations. For example, when Arvid’s new wife drags him to a dinner party with another couple, the playful banter drives him to punch his wife’s friend in the face. Within the world of the story, the audience can sympathise because it isn’t modern day, and modern sensibilities don’t make sense within that world, but as the characters act in a modern way, the punch is still a huge deal.

The series is written and directed by Jon Iver Helgaker and Jonas Torgersen, and they bring a lot of humour to the script in the characters awkward interactions. The fact that these tough warriors act so timid and awkward creates a lot of humour, and the contrast between how these characters and the proud warlords from Vikings is apparent. Oddly enough they also feel more relatable, more like real people going through problems. The show even uses the same style of music as Vikings. Aside from the writing Helgaker and Torgersen use excellent cinematography to showcase the setting. Several of the overhead drone shots are incredibly beautiful, although I think that the dialogue scenes could be filmed much more interestingly, and perhaps add to the humour. For example, It would be great to shoot something mundane in slow motion or fast editing, similar to the way Hot Fuzz uses dramatic editing to make fun of action films.

I haven’t finished the series yet, but I’m interested to see where it goes, and side from a few issues, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a decent bit of comic television and for the budget and scale, looks relatively high quality. The costumes are a bit bland, but that also adds to the charm of the show, it’s not interesting in complete historical accuracy or huge production values, this is a show that entertains first. The series has gotten a bit of attention online, but I think it deserves more, and I’d be interested what they could do with a larger budget, so If you get a chance, check this one out!

The Defenders meets expectations, but no more…

The Defenders is about as good as I expected, although not much better…

I just finished binging Marvel’s The Defenders and it was very entertaining. While it lacks the depth and ambiguity of Daredevil and Jessica Jones in particular, the series follows up on character development extremely well. While I overall enjoyed it thoroughly, I have some thoughts I’d like to share, on what went well and what went wrong. This is a series which could very easily have been bogged down by the sheer amount of characters and fans expectation, but given the obstacles the show faced, the Defenders is a success. It manages to balance the four leads screen time and personalities well, and sets up future narratives with a strong emphasis on the close of a chapter.

This feels like the close of a story begun in the first season of Daredevil. For the longest time, the Hand have been in the background, pulling the strings, and now finally our heroes confront them, led by Alexandra (played by the brilliant Sigourney Weaver). She brings a restrained performance, giving us a strong leader on the verge of desperation, dying and unable to confront it. The first scene, showing her undergoing cancer testing is a vulnerable moment that humanises her as well as giving her firm motivation, and even a believable excuse for being rushed or making mistakes. Weaver plays this vulnerability perfectly, whilst also projecting strength when in the company of others. This is one of the reasons I feel it was a shame the way the show-runners dealt with her character. Beyond this point there will be spoilers…

The decision to kill of Alexandra was bold, but a misstep. If the show had a viable replacement under its belt I would be thrilled, but instead the villain who steps up, Elektra, is just not as engaging. It is the same mistake they made on Luke Cage, where Cottonmouth was bumped off early to be replaced by another snake themed bad guy with a less interesting character and ten times more insanity. Diamond-back was just an angry secret brother with an unstable demeanour, and it was unrealistic for this character to be a crime-lord. The same can be said for Elektra. Elodie Yung gives a smashing performance, but the character is the problem. Her motivation is unclear, does she love Matt Murdoch, does she want to kill him? We don’t know. She just can’t fill the Weaver’s shoes.

On the plus side, the four leads bring their A-game, and even Finn Jones’ Iron Fist, the weakest of the four characters is much more enjoyable here. The way the writers have all four bouncing off each other works very well and it’s interesting watching their different perspectives and ideologies clash. The action is splendid for the most part, except when for some reason the shots are shaky close ups in dark rooms. This happens more during group fights, which makes the one on one moments oddly much better. The one exception is the moment all four first meet, during the fight in Midland Circle, which show-cases all of their differing fighting styles and abilities, whilst leaving room to see clearly.

The show wraps up a lot of loose ends from the previous series and starts new narratives, and many of the side characters get interesting conversations, even in the finale. Honestly the biggest problem with this mini-series is that it never gets better than fine. It is a perfectly fine series that has some memorable and even really great elements, but as a whole, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Daredevil season 1 or even Jessica Jones. It just feels like the story lets it down; it’s too basic, too by the numbers to really impress, and I must confess I hope this is the last of the Hand story-line. I’m sick of ninja assassin cults and immortal criminals, these shows need to embrace the grittiness that makes them so refreshing in the MCU. But for what it’s worth, I probably will watch it at least once again.