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Thor Ragnarok

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What costume design!

Earlier this year, around the time of the D23 Expo I think, Screen Junkies commentator Spencer Gilbert refered to Thor Ragnarok as “MCU Crack”.  Meaning that it was to be a laboratorial condensation of everything that Marvel Studios has become known for.  Things like quippy humor and overblown action sequences have made The Marvel Cinematic Universe readily accessible to both comic readers and uninitiated moviegoers alike.  I was wary of this, Civil War proved last year that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and the undeniable big-ness of the ad campaign for Ragnarok had me somewhat turned off to the movie.  However, I had no real expectations for it either.  Thor was decent, but The Dark World was thoroughly mediocre.  Thor isn’t my most favorite character anyway, and if it weren’t for some friends of mine going to see it, I probably wouldn’t have purchased a ticket.  But HOLY CRAP, was I pleased with what I got.

After a dangerous encounter with Hela, goddess of death, Thor and Loki are estranged on a backwater world called Sakkar.  A planet littered with the galaxy’s trash, and inhabited by deadly gladiators.  While they look for a way back, Hela lays waste to Asgard seeking to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Ragnarok.

There is no shortage of action in this story.  It doesn’t really feel like an action based movie, but it is almost impossible to be bored watching it.  There is always something electric going on, but Taika Waititi’s writing is so perfectly on point that one leaves the theater not thinking of one or two defining action setpieces, but picking up their jaw at the intensity of the movie as a whole.  The thing flows like a river, its comedy, action, and dialogue intertwining and becoming indistinguishable in some cases.  It isn’t until after the credits roll that one really considers the magnitude of this truly epic story.

Subplot material at best, but extremely satisfying is Heimdall’s (Idris Elba’s) role in the story.  Robbed of his armor, he looks somehow even cooler with dreads and a leather robe.  In the absence of Thor, he takes it upon himself to be the protector of the citizens of Asgard who are being subjugated by Hela.  A man of the people to Chris Hemsworth’s elite warrior.  Similarly, Thor’s new gladiator armor minus Mjolnir but with the addition of face paint is fantastic.  Thor’s lightning charged rampage in the finale set to blaring Led Zeppelin may be the greatest sequence ever included in a marvel film (not directed by James Gunn of course.  He’s still a genius).

Here is a movie that doesn’t just combine excellent cinematography, visual effects, and writing, but that also has the guts to step out of the familiar box that superhero flicks have long been trapped in.  Instead, this film aligns perfectly with the tone of Thor’s zany and psychedelic comic book origin.  As I said before, Thor is a competently produced piece of filmmaking.  As a matter of fact, It’s the first superhero film that I actually saw in a theater so I will always love it.  However, it is remarkably closed-minded when the character’s actual history is taken into consideration.  Hero falls to earth, meets humans, interacts with their culture (to hilarious results), and battles an enemy from his own.  Textbook “fish-out-of-water story” beats.  Thor is a larger than life character, and while entertaining when we first see him, he’s pretty, well… life-sized.

In great contrast Ragnarok opens with a 4th wall breaking monologue, and then finds The god of thunder battling Surtur, a demonic giant with an enormous flaming sword.  He then takes on an enormous horde of smaller enemies before strapping the head of his bested foe (yes, his head) to his back and flying off with it.  This would probably not have been well received back in 2010.  The films were closed-minded because we as a moviegoing public were as well.  2017 finds us in a more mature state of mind.  This movie isn’t “MCU Crack”, its “Comic Film Rehab” steering away from the norm and saving us from more of the same; yanking the wheel closer to the true spirit of the character.  Wolverine let loose in Logan, and we saw the most accurate depiction of Peter Parker to date in Spider Man Homecoming.  Why shouldn’t there be a Thor story as ridiculous and far-fetched as the mythology from which he hails?

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Mark Millar’s 2012 graphic novel Kingsman: The Secret Service is a deliberate satire of bondian spy antics.  The immorality of a secret agent’s death-dealing, drink-quaffing, and womanizing antics are put on display for mockery.  It does help that there is a hilarious cameo in the book’s beginning in which Mark Hamill — captured and tied up — explain’s to his captor why the Star Wars prequels are still important.  Nonetheless, Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation takes a very different tonal direction, shifting from mockery of secret agent behavior, to adoration of it.

This perpetual worship of the spy genre is one of the movie’s greatest strengths.  The goofiness of the average spy’s MO is twisted around, and turned into a glorious spectacle as we revel in the genius of riot shield umbrellas, explosive lighters, and poison-bladed oxfords.

Samuel L. Jackson’s equally ridiculous villain Valentine is another positive callback.  His odd eccentricities could have been drawn from a hat.  He can’t stand the sight of blood, lisps, and eats McDonald’s from a silver platter.  His unrefined nature and odd sense of style are the perfect foil for the Tailor Shop-based Kingsmen, and their well-groomed, detail oriented tendencies.

And then there is Matthew Vaughn’s mastery of the camera.  He does something indescribable with his action scenes that combined the fluidity of slo-mo action that takes in every component of a shot, with the intensity of an extreme shaky-cam.  This is most adamantine in the famous “church scene” in which a mind controlled Harry Hart (Colin Firth) brutally dispenses with a congregation of Baptists set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird.  With Extremely long takes and an insane amount of pivot and pan with little cutaway we almost forget to notice the garish horror before our eyes.

This isn’t Vaughn’s only time doing this though.  He once again finds beauty out of revolting imagery in the film’s climax, in which an explosive device that rests inside the head of each employee of Valentine’s must be exploited.  What is expected?  the end of Phantom Menace but bloodier?  But what do we get? A beautifully symphonic rendition of Pomp & Circumstance while heads explode in shades of indigo and orange.  This moment could easily serve as a metaphor for the entire film.  Vaughn repeatedly takes the most sickening and macabre subject matter and works his magic with it, rendering it fun, and visually spectacular.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

The movie industry is built on big budget franchises.  We know this.  We don’t care.  We complain en masse, but when it comes down to it, nobody minds excessive franchising or the recycling of familiar cinematic concepts enough to do anyhting about it.  I’m as much of a culprit as anyone else; this summer I went twice to see a movie that was the sixth film about that character, and the fifteenth of its series (Spider-Man Homecoming).

Rogue nation, the fifth film in the Mission Impossible series suffers this exact fatigue.  It is a slickly shot spy caper with deception and betrayal; full of perilous stunts and adrenaline pumping fire fights.  Were one to formulaically analyze the aspects of a good movie, and put all these ingredients back together, they would get Rogue Nation.  The problem is that cinema doesn’t work like that.  The handful of perfectly excecuted action setpieces (most notably a positively claustrophobic underwater scene) do not make up for the movies general soullessness.

There are no lapses in effort or major plot holes here.  All the acting is on point, and the camera movement and sound design could not be better.  My feeling leaving this movie though (and I am probably in the minority here) was that it was just a film made by a bunch of people who’s job it was to act, film, and design sound well.  There is no real beauty in this movie; no emotion or real stakes.  Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation didn’t feel like a labor of love, It felt like another day at the office.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of “The world’s worst opera singer” who’s name the title bears.  Meryl Streep’s Jenkins is a passionate patron of the arts who begins to perform concerts herself.  The only problem is that she has a terrible voice.  From the moment she first sings in front of a crowd, she is the laughingstock of the audience.  Knowing how it would crush her if she discovered this, her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant) keeps this under wraps, even going so far as to buy an entire stock of newspapers from a stand.

The  movie features little out of the ordinary in terms of direction, save for some standout performances from Streep, Grant, and surprisingly Simon Helberg as well;  We all know the former two can make eating corn flakes look interesting — who knew the guy from The Big Bang Theory could act?  Nonetheless it is largely free from any offending elements either.  Don’t Seek Florence Foster Jenkins out or buy it on DvD (as if people still do that) but should you happen upon a chance to watch it, don’t turn it down either.

47 Ronin

Despite a 14% on the tomatometer, 47 Ronin features excellent costume design

It’s movies like this, that made me want to start this blog.  47 Ronin, is a 2013 would be blockbuster that had the bad sense to release about a week after Desolation of Smaug in December.  I’m not saying you absolutely need to watch this movie, or even that it is a good film.  In this piece, I mean to make two points.  #1, making a movie is extremely hard, and anyone who has tried their hand at it can attest to this — and #2, While filled with lots of negative energy, there is merit worthy film-making to be salvaged from 47 Ronin.

For one thing, this movie stars Keanu Reeves who, when given the right environment, can enliven a film a great bit.  The thing about Reeves is that at this point in his career, he is more or less a stuntman with some acting under his belt.  His problem I think, is that he doesn’t seem to make distinction between good and bad films.  Reeves has been in John Wick, a very good film; as well as in Man of Tai Chi, a movie that was quite horrible.

His dedication to making an action sequence look and feel intense does more for the production than you might imagine.  He fights with a distinct energy, adhering to choreography, but throwing in an unscripted drive to his combat.  The movie does employ some CGI in the later fight scenes, and while this is a bump in the road, Reeves’ performance manages to make even those sequences enjoyable.

The main dilemma plaguing this film is that it represents an odd marriage between a sacred Japanese legend, and a fantastical adventure.  This strange combination is the movie’s biggest downfall.  When a witch with occult arachnian and lupine powers uses magic to manipulate a samurai lord into attacking another man, he is found out and stripped of his honor.  However, for his years of service, he is granted the chance to reclaim his dignity, by committing “seppuku”, or ritual suicide.  He does, and his disciples become “Ronin”, samurai with no master.  They seek to reclaim their master’s good name by avenging the evil Kira, who was indirectly responsible for his death.

They do, in a drawn out, but effective and entertaining action sequence.  Afterwards is where the movie begins to lose me.  The men are seen as guilty by the shogun, and sentenced to death or ritual suicide.  They obviously pick ritual suicide.  They were technically at fault, as they did in fact disobey orders not to avenge their leader.  But isn’t it just good common sense, that when a spider-witch gets involved, all bets are off?  The otherwise somber but momentous scene, in which 47 warriors run themselves through at once is sullied by one’s internal dialogue; “Couldn’t they just talk about it?”  Clearly there was no witch involved, in the real story.  However, the witch is integral to the film’s fantastical element.  Quite simply, 47 Ronin tries to have its cake, while eating it, and makes a crummy mess of things.

As I write this review, I am currently working on a film — a small 10-minute affair that while I’ve enjoyed, has been the hardest creative venture I’ve ever undertaken.  Realizing a vision as a series of images onto a screen is extremely difficult, and I’ve gained a lot of respect for anyone who can do it with even the slightest degree of cohesion.  Again, I’m not saying 47 Ronin is a must see.  It is very flawed, and by no means am I saying that every bad movie deserves a free pass because someone worked hard on it; But, I advise that you who view cinema, think about the movies you watch as I have thought about this one and open your eyes to what a film — especially a feature production — represents; hours upon hours of rehearsal, practice, and editing.  Even when it doesn’t pan out, the most pungent heap of cinematic garbage still possesses effort worthy of your respect and consideration.

 

MCU Under Review: The Avengers

It was May Fourth, 2012.  I was sitting in my last mod class, watching the clock.  Avengers came out that day, so that’s what I was thinking about.  Suddenly the office secretary called me down to the office.  My dad picked me up early and we drove away from school.  I became suspicious, when we missed the turn to go home, and knew something was definitely up when we pulled into the parking lot by the cinema.  I didn’t say anything as we waited in line at the box office, and walked down the hall to go to our seats.

As the film started, I was still in slight disbelief.  I had not been a comic fan for long, but what I lacked in experience, I made up for with passionate fascination.  I had seen these characters together in graphic novels, animated tv shows, and even trailers, but even then, the idea of an Avengers movie, seemed hopelessly out of reach.  This film delivered in spades, proving that what once was a fanboy fantasy, was now the future of commercial moviemaking.

Joss Whedon’s and Zak Penn’s screenplay is light on plot, delivering a simple villian, doomsday scenario, and means of stopping it.  The film builds, and builds, counting on its excellent cast of actors to ratchet up the tension.  The real gem of this film is being able to see these different personalities bounce off one another, and clash together.  Bruce Banner’s reluctance to be involved vs. Tony Stark’s eagerness to be involved in everything; Steve Rogers’ selflessness vs. Stark’s casual narccisism.  Each member of the team does a perfect job, not just delivering their lines well, but broadcasting personality.  Look at the way Mark Ruffalo fidgets with his hands and the way Tony constantly looks around the SHEILD helicarrrier as if he owns the place.

Plus, there is a certain magic, to seeing a unity of superhumans like this unfold from the very beginning.  Unused to other beings of their caliber, they do what anyone embodied with their abilities might.  They fight, often to hilarious result (Iron Man’s duels with Thor still makes me laugh after five years).  They each are their own powerful beam of energy, and when they are pushed together by a common cause, they become stronger.  (That last sentence sounded like it might be a quote from one of the scientists in the movie).

The miniscule criticism that exists points out that the Avengers sacrifices a lot of character development for a 40 minute plus battle royale around Manhattan; Spectacle is placed over substance.  This may be true, but Joss Whedon makes an art out of spectacle. Just watch this clip, and Marvel in its excellence.

This probably the most stunning shot in the movie, and quite possibly, my favorite shot in a movie ever.  The camera movement is fantastic, as it swoops here and there, following our heroes through the battle.  More importantly however, it communicates the idea that even as they whiz along propelled by jet boots or hitching a ride on a Chitauri speeder, sometimes separated by entire city blocks, The Avengers are still fighting together.

Walking out of the theater, I figured, after that post-credit scene we were getting ready for a secret invasion movie.  It wasn’t until later that I learned that the smiling figure who wanted to court death  was not the super skrull, but the Mad Titan Thanos.  Immediately, my friends and I began theorizing.  Would there be a Civil War film?  Might we get a Black Widow solo movie?  Some of these wishes have been granted, others replaced by bigger and better things.  This movie opened up a world of Infinite possibilities…possibilities that are still coming into fruition today.

Plot- 2/2
Characters/Loyalty- 1/1
Score/soundtrack- 1/1
Cinematography- 1/1
Special Effects- 1/1
Action/tension- 1/1
Tone/Aesthetic- 1/1
Overall Enjoyment Factor-2/2

Final Score: 10/10

District 9

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District 9 is a film from 2009 directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring Sharlto Copeley.  The film has recieved various recognitions, including four academy awards.  Something like this is a bit curious to the cinematic outsider, which I was when the film was released.  Everything I saw indicated that it was another alien invasion flick, which is fine.  But really, that isn’t what  District 9 is a clever, intentional movie about alien/human relations, that bears clear parallel to the way that we treat members of our own species.

The first thirty minutes of the movie could, to the unknowing viewer, easily be mistaken for an actual documentary.  News snippets, interviews, and shakily filmed footage of alien tenements lend it an air of reality, that I’ve never seen a sci-fi flick inhabit before.  Though the interviews cease, and the news footage cease in frequency, cease as the film begins to be shot like an actual movie with things like multiple camera angles, the camera work lends it a certain fidelity that never fades in intensity throughout the story progression.

The use of computer and special effects is minimal, even though the aliens appear to be all CG.  The fictitious elements of the story like the aliens, weapons, and ships don’t clash with the tangible elements because of how real the camera makes the locations feel.  Deep in your mind you know that the alien running around isn’t really there, but it is real enough to immerse you in the story.

Even once the camera emerges from its documentary style cinematography, we still feel sometimes like the camera man is an actual person within the scene.  The action is reminiscent of war footage, albiet with more lasers.  There are even a few gopro shots from a gunbarrel.  Everything feels very genuine and very dangerous.

Also, without spoiling too much for those who have yet to see the movie, Sharlto Copely is an excellent actor.  Wickus van de Merwe starts the film as a clueless government worker, and developes into a very changed character by the film’s end.  It is Copely’s excellent acting prowess that makes this ‘ahem’ transformation so powerful.

This is a film that draws some not-so-subtle connections to South Africa’s history with apartheid.  The way that the aliens are sequestered and abused mirrors the way many black South Africans were treated.  The script does a great job of humanizing the aliens despite their outlandish appearance, making their plight a sympathetic one, showing that, barring difference of appearance, they are not that different from their homo sapien oppressors.

A sci-fi flick that isn’t too foreign, a documentarian vehicle that doesn’t bore, and a story of morals that refrains from becoming too preachy, District 9 is well worth the watch.